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Sunday, 28 November 2010

The Twitter Joke Trial: the Crown Court judgment.

Below is the judgment given by Doncaster Crown Court on 11 November 2010 refusing the appeal of Paul Chambers of his conviction and sentence.


On the 10th May 2010, the Appellant, Paul Chambers, a 27 year old, working in the finance industry, appeared before District Judge Bennett at Doncaster Magistrates’ Court and was convicted of an offence of sending, by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that was grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character contrary to Section 1271(A) and (3) of the Communications Act 2003.

He appeals against that conviction by virtue of a Notice of Appeal dated the 18th May 2010. At the conclusion of the Respondent’s case, the Appellant made submissions that the case should proceed no further.

This morning, we have given our reasons for rejecting those submissions, having concluded that the evidence at that point was capable of amounting to the charge we are concerned with. We do not propose to repeat our summary of the evidence contained in that Judgment.

The Appellant gave evidence. He confirmed that he was now 27, but 26 at the time we are concerned with, and that he was of hitherto good character. He described his education and his academic achievements, having obtained 17 GCSE certificates.

Since leaving school he has furthered his education and has been in constant employment, initially with an automotive company, but since 2006 he has worked with a subsidiary company and was promoted to administration and finance supervisor. In recent times he has undertaken tasks with a greater degree of responsibility and told us he would not knowingly risk his job. In consequence of this conviction he was suspended and eventually dismissed.

He described how he met Crazy Colours online and had seen her once prior to these events. He agreed that it was obviously then a relationship in its early stages. It was an important relationship, indeed, he is now living with her.

He accepted he was frustrated by the potential cancellation of, or interference with, his plan to visit Belfast to see her and that his followers would have been aware of the importance to him of his relationship. But he denied that he was prepared to put out a threat.

He accepts that he sent the message in question on the public timeline of Twitter, but says he did not regard it as menacing. He did not intend it to be, nor did he see any risk at all that it would be so regarded. He said that if he had, he would have not sent it.

He described his Twitter usage and agreed he had 690 followers and had sent 1,400 messages over the eleven months that he had been using the site. So far as the messages sent directly to Crazy Colours were concerned earlier that day, he accepted sending those.

In cross-examination, he was asked about his experience of travelling by air and he said that he had not done so for five years, since he was 21, but he did not read the news, save on his news feed and he did not then often watch the television news.

He was asked why he had made references to terrorism in his private messages and he said “I never thought about it”. When asked about whether he expected others to read his message, he said he didn’t think about it and denied that he was showing off, although we note in passing, that in his interview at page 22, he expressed a contrary view.

We pause at this stage to note that his private dialogue, at messages 451 and 454, appeared to us to include others, as can be seen from messages 452 and 453.

He said that the content of the messages to Crazy Colours and those from others, did not stick in his mind, despite the fact, as was put to him, that he only sent 5 tweets at the material time, as we have been informed.

Mr Ferguson repeats and amplifies the three submissions he made to us at an earlier stage of the case and we will deal with these in the same order.

We have already set out in detail the statutory provisions and the interpretation of them by both the Divisional Court and the House of Lords. We remind ourselves obviously of the burden and standard for proof.

We are satisfied, on the evidence, that the message in question is menacing in its content and obviously so. It is difficult to imagine anything more clear. It fits the Oxford English Dictionary definition and the observations of Lord Justice Sedley, to which we have earlier referred. It is, in our judgement, menacing per se.

Although the offence does not require the message to be seen, we take the view that an ordinary person seeing this, and we have no evidence that anyone did, would see it in that way and be alarmed. The airport staff did see it and were sufficiently concerned to report it. As the authorities make it clear, there is no need for anyone to see the message and in any event, different people can have different views.

The required mens rea for this offence is that the person sending the message must have intended the message to be menacing, or be aware that it might be taken to be so.

This Appellant was 26, well-educated and in a responsible job and there is no evidence that he is anything other than of sound mind. We, of course, bear in mind his evidence and the importance of his good character, acknowledging, of course, that good character cannot provide a defence.

We found the Appellant to be an unimpressive witness. We find it impossible to accept that anyone living in this country, in the current climate of terrorist threats, particularly at airports, would not be aware of the consequences of his actions in making such a statement.

Furthermore, we are satisfied that he, as an experienced user of Twitter, made a deliberate decision to post this message on the public timeline of Twitter, on the very day he sent seemingly related private messages to Crazy Colours and within two hours of posting them. We do not accept his evidence that he was unaware of television news and newspaper reports at the material time. His account in interview, as we have observed earlier, was self-serving, although we note that at page 2 of his interview, he uses the expression, when dealing with his Twitter experiences, not to this serious of magnitude.

Accordingly, we are satisfied that the Respondent has proved the necessary mens rea and that the Appellant was, at the very least, aware that his message was of a menacing character.

Finally, in respect of the third matter raised, we repeat our findings on that aspect, made at an earlier stage of this case.

Accordingly, the appeal is dismissed.


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Wednesday, 10 November 2010

The Mass Libel Reform Blog - Fight for Free Speech

In common with many other bloggers, I am delighted to host the following at the suggestion of Simon Singh.


This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at libelreform.org.

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at libelreform.org.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

"Left/Right Blindness" and other reflections on my recent New Statesman blogging


I have now been blogging regularly at the New Statesman for a couple of months.

(You can see a list of my posts so far here.)

I have missed blogging at Jack of Kent - and I certainly miss many of the usual commenters on posts here that have not yet journeyed over to the New Statesman.

As it appears that my blogging at New Statesman has got off the ground, I would like to share some reflections - especially with those of you who have been kind enough to follow my blogging for some time.

In other words: what am I up to?


One easy answer answer to that is that I am simply getting paid for indulging in a favourite hobby. A properly-researched blogpost can take a substantial amount of time, and so it is nice to be remunerated for that time. Many of those who blog do so as volunteers and, as they face other demands on their finite time, they will tend to blog less often, or even give up. As long as the New Statesman (or anyone else) want me to blog for them for money, I am more likely to be able to carry on producing the sort of blogposts which make blogging a joy rather than a chore.

Another answer is that blogging for the New Statesman allows me to engage constructively with a wider, perhaps more-politicised readership. This means I can write some posts which show the merits of a source-based approach to a story in the public domain. And I can also do other posts where I can learn from the reaction to the teasing out of the practical application of those political concepts which have longed pre-occupied me: namely, what are valid interferences with freedom of expression, what constitutes good policy and law making, and what exactly is an abuse of power.

And my third answer is that it is fun. I have often no idea what I am going to write on next, whether it will go down well or badly, or whether it will go viral or just be ignored. And I confess I find this lack of predictability rather exciting.

But in more concrete terms, what have I been up to?


For long-term followers of this blog, some of the New Statesman posts would not be surprising.

My most popular (in the sense of visits and comments) was my exploration of the curious case of Oliver Drage, who received a custodial sentence as a result of not providing his password (or encryption code) to the police.

A similar post was in respect of the alleged "song lyrics" inserted in the oral witness evidence in the inquest of Mark Saunders. This post allowed me to provide the relevant transcript, which as the commenters began to point out, did not tally with the mainstream media coverage of the same story.

The structure of both those "legal" posts would be familiar to anyone who has read this blog over time; and it is great that the New Statesman provides a platform for me to try and show the merits of such an approach to a wider readership.


I have also sought to adopt this source-based approach to stories which are not especially "legal". My post on Nadine Dorries exposed - with referenced supporting material - how she was caught telling the Parliamentary Commissioner one thing and her constituents another.

And the second of my posts on the aborted strike over the Bonfire Night period by the London firefighters sought to show what the issues were according to material provided to me by both sides.


Then there are the posts where I am seeking to apply my interests in liberalism, abuses of power, free expression, and the nature of good policy and law making, to stories in the news.

When posting these I confess that I am mindful that the posts can well be provocative to some of the Left wing readers of the New Statesman. However, they are posted in good faith and are sincere attempts to think through an issue in principled terms. Notwithstanding my accusers, I am not trolling by blogpost.

Such posts have included exploring the free speech implications of protests against Tony Blair and the Pope. Another such post was the controversial one where I raised the issue of whether a strike by public service workers could be an an abuse of power.

In these posts I am afraid I do rather betray both my Left-Right blindness and my Public-Private blindness.

If the liberal principles of countering abuses of power and resisting curbs on free expression really have any foundational merit, then they have to be of general - if not universal - application.

And if that is correct, then there is no inherent reason why the Right or the Left, or the Public Sector or the Private Sector, would be any more or less prone to abuses of power or other illiberal behaviour.

Illiberal and misconceived uses of power cannot always just be done by the "other side".

(Amusingly, every time I do this sort of post, there will be someone who says: "I was a fan of what you did before, but now...".)


Other posts have dealt with substantive policy areas where I wish to promote certain approaches - for example the de-criminalisation of sex work - here and here - and on voting rights for prisoners.


And finally, I have even stuck in a couple of posts which draw on my "skeptic" background: one following The Amazing Meeting and the other on a bad day for Scientology.


Which of these types of post will become more common over time?

The heavily-researched ones will necessarily be infrequent. And the ones exploring the applications of liberal principles to emerging news stories may become less about asking questions, and more about answering them.

My main hope is that I can consistently post about news stories (or break news stories) in a way which is both source-based and confidently open about the liberal approach which is being adopted: that there will be less of a marked distinction between my "critical" (or "skeptic") blogs and my liberal blogs.

I also hope to post here on Jack of Kent more often as well. This is because - to my genuine surprise - I have been told that some people associate "Jack of Kent" with certain normative and critical values which would be sad to lose.


So hearty thanks to everyone who has read - and commented - on my posts both here and at the New Statesman - and let's see what happens next.

And please do forgive my thinking aloud on this post.


COMMENTS MODERATION

No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.