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Twitter Joke Not of ‘Menacing Character’

The High Court has overturned Paul Chambers’ conviction under the Communications Act 2003, s.127 (1) (a) and (3). Paul Chambers was convicted in May 2010 of sending a message of a ‘menacing character’. The 2003 Act prohibits the sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. During the appeal by Chambers, it was found that the tweet in question did not amount to a message of a menacing character. It is notable that while the Communications Act 2003 predates the launch of Twitter by 4 years, the court confirmed that the Act does apply to Twitter.
 
This case has highlighted the law’s difficulty in distinguishing between different tones used in email, text and tweet messaging. An important point was the issue of whether Chambers’ tweet was merely a joke, or whether it was of a threatening character. This decision was difficult for the judges, who at first dismissed the appeal asserting that any ordinary person reading the tweet would be alarmed. The representatives for Mr Chambers relied on Article 10 of the European convention on human rights which protects freedom of expression. On Friday 27th July 2012, Chambers won his appeal and the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction.

In addition to this case, a number of other cases attracting media attention have revolved around the harassment and abuse of Twitter users, most notably, of those in the public eye. On 31st July 2012 a 17 year old boy was arrested in the course of an investigation into abusive Twitter messages sent to Olympic diver Tom Daley. The boy was issued with a harassment warning and released on bail while police reportedly questioned him about other messages he had allegedly sent.
 
Guardian Law published a quick guide on the legal risks of Twitter in light of the recent media attention given to the social networking site and the lawfulness of tweets. The guide can be found here and lists precautions that any member of the public should take when using Twitter.

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Criminal Law