Twitter joke trial shows UK law 'not fit for purpose'
by Andy Halsall
Common sense may have finally prevailed in the 'Twitter joke trial', but it does nothing to tackle the root problem that for the last decade personal liberties and free expression have been trampled in the name of security, says the Pirate Party UK
In January 2010 cold weather and snow caused disruption across northern England, and public transport, including air travel, faced serious delays. Nottingham's Robin Hood airport was one of many that was forced to delay and then cancel flights. On January 6 Paul Chambers turned to Twitter to express his frustration at the impact weather was having on his travel plans. He tweeted: "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!!"
If he had said this in a pub he might have gotten a few laughs. If he had said it on a television comedy show, or on the BBC's motoring show Top Gear, it would likely have gone unremarked – just another comment about Britain's inability to deal with bad weather. But he said it on Twitter and someone had noticed. An airport employee saw the message and decided to escalate it. Airport management decided it was not a credible threat, but decided that they too would pass the buck and contacted the police. It should have ended there, but sadly for Paul, it did not.
Paul was arrested by counter-terrorism officers at his office, his house was searched and electronic equipment, including his mobile phone and computer, were seized. Instead of seeing the comment for the joke it was, the justice system swung into gear. Paul was charged with "sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character". By May 10 he had been found guilty of the offence, fired from his job, fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 in costs. The tweet, a joke in 25 words, less than 140 characters, had now cost him £1,000 and his job.
The communications act was not intended to have a chilling effect on expression yet the reaction to the news of Paul's arrest was one of shock and concern, if it could happen to him it could happen to any of us. There were protests across the country, online campaigns and celebrities including Stephen Fry and Al Murray gave their support. Tens of thousands of people, including Pirate Party UK leader Loz Kaye, showed their solidarity by retweeting Paul's message. After protesting under signs declaring 'I am Spartacus' some handed themselves in to the police, only to find that they were not arrested.
It is clear that trying to legislate or police on the basis of what people read into a message is not a good idea, it makes it impossible to know whether any statement or comment is 'legal' or not. It constrains what can be said. It was not until last week, more than two years and three appeals since Paul's initial arrest, that the conviction was finally quashed. In a country world-famous for its sense of humour, it took two years and countless hours of court time to recognise a joke.
Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights is supposed to guarantee freedom of expression, where that freedom is subject to restrictions "in accordance with law" and "necessary in a democratic society", and its implementation varies from country to country. What has become clear is that United Kingdom law is not fit for purpose in the age of the internet. The UK's coalition government promised a drive towards greater civil liberties, but has failed to deliver on that promise. Instead, an excessive focus on security, to the detriment of both personal liberty and individual expression, has been prevalent for the last 10 years.
This decision was the right one: to many it will seem like common sense prevailed, but we must remember that it took years to get to this point. Paul cannot be given those two years of his life back and the decision does nothing to address the root of the problem. This verdict will not be the end of the story, but a step towards a UK with more liberty and fewer barriers to freedom.
Andy Halsall is campaigns officer for the Pirate Party UK