Tuesday 23rd November 2010
The Paul Chambers "Twitter Joke Trial" story as it has become known, is a complex and difficult one for people to get their heads around. There are several important nuances to this case which are at the very core of the judgement and the subsequent appeals.
Amongst other things, there is wide use in the press of terms such as "bomb threat" "threaten" and "hoax". These are inaccurate and misleading.
For this reason, I've compiled this simple brief guide for those unfamiliar with the case.
No. There is specific legislation to deal with bomb threats: section 51 of the Criminal Law Act.
Paul Chambers was not charged under this act because:
a] He posted his tweet for only his twitter friends (or "followers") to view
b] He had not sent the the tweet directly to the airport
c] The initial investigating officer at the airport stated
"There is no evidence at this stage that this is anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see"
d] The CPS identified that this was not a bomb threat, and prosecuting it as such would not result in a conviction.
Paul Chambers was charged under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 - this law was designed to protect members of the public from receiving abusive and/or "menacing" messages.
No. His tweet was not sent to the airport. It was posted on his "timeline" - he would have expected only his "followers" to read it.
If you think of Paul's "tweet" as similar to a "status" update on Facebook, or a conversation with friends in a public place, this probably helps as a metaphor.
A manager at Robin Hood Airport was searching for mentions of Robin Hood airport using the Twitter service, days after the tweet was posted. It is a feature of Twitter that users' tweets are by default searchable by anybody. As a result, the tweet was found by this manager, who had no choice but to report it for investigation by airport security.
The investigating officer at the airport regarded it as a joke, and stated as much in his report. However, he passed it on to the police. They in turn categorised it as "non credible" - which is the lowest category of threat level which can be assigned. However, they arrested him 3 days later and charged him under the 1977 "Bomb Threat" act referenced above.
However the CPS realised that no such charge was going to result in a conviction, and decided to charge Chambers under the little used section 127 of the Commmunications Act 2003.
"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!!"
Note the exclamation marks. You may choose to censor this for print or broadcast elsewhere, but please don't lose those exclamation marks! They set the tone of the message.
These articles from Paul Chambers' solicitor go into great detail on the case:
Lots of links, and the trial fund campaign can be found here
Here's some serious philosophical discussion: