Prison for… Tweeting?

In another case involving both Twitter and an apparent desire on the part of some people in power to prevent, well, at worst rudeness on the part of other citizens, a British man faced six months in jail for what appears to be offensiveness toward a politician. A self-appointed citizen journalist, John Graham Kerlen (blogging and tweeting as “Olly Cromwell”) has been involved in a series of run-ins as he attempts to prove Bexley Council in London is guilty of corruption. The issue isn’t whether he’s right or wrong about that, but that his online actions have led to a charge of “grossly offensive” and “menacing” communications under Section 127 of the UK’s Communications Act 2003.

What were those actions? Once again, it was a profanity directed at a local councillor, along with a second tweet encouraging others to send dog feces to the same councillor. Not admirable behaviour, no. But six months in prison? It’s probably worth mentioning that nobody took him up on his suggestion as most people are capable, apparently, of recognizing a harmless crank. Something the law appears less capable of.

Anyway, this one was recently resolved in the end, with Kerlen avoiding a custodial sentence and having to pay £620 pounds in court expenses and undertake 80 hours of community work.

I mention this story as it’s reminiscent of the far more serious case, and one we’ve been neglectful in not following, in which another British man, Paul Chambers, was also convicted under the Communications Act 2003 of “sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.” The problem message? Well, after a series of weather-disrupted flight cancellations across northern England over the winter of 2009/2010, frustrated passenger Chambers tweeted this message:

“Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

Inadvisable? Sure. Yet clearly a joke, surely? Is it really all that different from a wife saying “if my husband leaves his shoes on in the house again, I’m going to kill him!”? Imagine tweeting something similar and finding five police officers at your house waiting to arrest you and confiscate your computers and phones.

Much of the legal argument revolved around whether it was a credible threat, but again, most commentators agreed it basically wasn’t credible at all. Facing significant legal costs and considerable fines, Chambers case has dragged through the endless appeals processes, with judgment currently “reserved” and in the hands of two high court judges. It has attracted much attention from celebrities, with comedian and television presenter Stephen Fry—citing the importance of the free speech aspect of the case—offering to pay his legal costs. (That last link takes you to an excellent short video of Fry explaining his reactions.)

Why should we care? Well, there is a link here to concerns that have been raised over government officials admitting ignorance over the wider implications of bills such as the failed SOPA and PIPA, Canada’s Bill C-11 which he government is currently attempting to force through parliament, and many similar legislations around the world.

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