New guidelines make sure that jokes posted on Twitter don’t land people in court
Keir Starmer QC, the director of public prosecutions in the UK, has published a set of guidelines on how to deal with court cases that involve social media. The document attempts to draw a line between real-world threats and the offensive but rarely harmful messages people post on Twitter and Facebook.
It follows the case of the ‘Twitter bomber’ Paul Chambers, who jokingly threatened to blow up the Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire, but was later arrested under the Terrorism Act and spent the last three years appealing his conviction.
The guidelines are meant to advise prosecutors until the end of public consultation on the topic, due to be published in March 2013, and are likely to reduce the number of Internet ‘trolls’ ending up in court.
A sense of humour
Starmer, a human rights lawyer with 20 years of experience, has written the guidelines to ensure “the consistency of approach” across the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Twitter, Facebook, police, regulators and journalists were all invited to contribute to the discussion in a series of roundtables.
“These interim guidelines are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law,” writes Starmer.
According to the document, there needs to be a clear distinction between harassment, credible threats of violence and breaches of court orders as opposed to content posted on social media, which does not lead to any real-world harm.
Starmer suggested defendants in cases involving social media should only be prosecuted if they “cross a high threshold”. And if the communication is swiftly removed, blocked, or access to it is limited, running a court case is unlikely to be in the public interest.
The guidelines include a special exception for “banter” and “humour”, and essentially say that people who post criminal comments while drunk could avoid trial, if they apologise and make amends.
Starmer also notes that the age and maturity of suspect should be given significant weight, particularly if they are under the age of 18.
“This interim guidance sets out clear advice to police forces in England and Wales on handling complaints from the public relating to social media. It takes a common sense approach and will help support consistency from prosecutors and police,” commented chief constable Andy Trotter, communications lead for Association of Chief Police Officers.
The interim guidelines do not change the law, but set out the approach prosecutors should follow when dealing with cases that involve messages on social media websites. Further guidance will be available in three months, after the end of the public consultation on the subject.
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