‘Menacing tweet’ conviction challenged

Posted: 27th June 2012

A man found guilty of sending a menacing tweet had celebrity backing as he renewed his challenge against conviction.
TwiterPaul Chambers was flanked by broadcaster, Stephen Fry, and comedian, Al Murray, as three judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, reviewed his case at the High Court.
The accountant was fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs at Doncaster Magistrates’ Court in May 2010 after being convicted of sending ‘a message of a menacing character’, contrary to provisions of the 2003 Communications Act.
He said he sent the tweet to his 600 followers in a moment of frustration after Robin Hood Airport, in South Yorkshire, was closed by snow in January 2010 and never thought that anyone would take his ‘silly joke’ seriously.
The tweet read: ‘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!’
In November 2010, Crown Court judge, Jacqueline Davies, sitting with two magistrates, dismissed his appeal, saying that the electronic communication was ‘clearly menacing’ and that airport staff were sufficiently concerned to report it.
Opening a new bid to overturn his conviction and sentence, John Cooper QC told Lord Judge, Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Griffith Williams that the wrong legal tests had been applied.
He said that the message was sent on a timeline on the Twitter facility to Mr Chambers’ followers and not as a randomly searched for communication. The relevant section of the Act was never intended by Parliament to deal with messages to the ‘world at large’, the barrister argued.
The circumstances of the offence of a ‘menacing character’ had a higher legal threshold than that of a ‘threatening character’. Not all threats were menaces, Mr Cooper said. To constitute a menace, he added, the threat must be of such a nature so that the mind of an ‘ordinary person of normal stability and courage’ might be influenced.
Also, the person sending the message must intend to threaten the person to whom the message was sent - in other words, it was a crime of specific intent, Mr Cooper argued. Mr Chambers’ right to freedom of speech under the European Convention on Human Rights was engaged, he told the court.
Turning from the law to technology, he said that the 2003 Act did not ‘bite’ as the social media platform involved was ‘a content service’ and therefore outside the definition of both public electronic communication service and public electronic network.
Mr Cooper said that it was obvious that the tweet was a joke - not intended to be taken seriously by anyone and sent by someone who did not hide his identity. It was certainly not sent in the context of terrorism and it was wrong for the Crown Court to make such an association.
Mr Cooper said: ‘If that be the case, and I don’t mean to be flippant, John Betjeman would be concerned when he said ‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough’, or Shakespeare when he said ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers’.
Lord Judge commented: ‘That was a good joke in 1600 and it is still a good joke now.’ Mr Cooper replied: ‘And it was a joke, my Lord.’
He added: ‘This was no ultimatum of a serious kind to the airport. The last thing this particular tweeter wanted was for the airport to be closed.’
He told the judges that Twitter was invented in 2006 and so was not known to Parliament at the time of the 2003 Act.
Robert Smith QC, for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said that, on any view, Mr Chambers, a man of previous good character, was ‘very foolish’ to do what he did. The question was, by whose standards and by what members of society would such a message be viewed as a joke, given that those who had access to it would probably not have any knowledge of the circumstances which led to it being sent.
He said that the Crown Court was right to refer to terrorism, not because it perceived the message as indicating a possible threat, but because it was concerned that, after the tweet was sent, Mr Chambers sent messages to his girlfriend referring to terrorism.
‘These were not posted on the timeline and the court relied on them to demonstrate the accuracy of their finding that Mr Chambers was aware, and must have been aware, of the possible impact of his message on any member of the public of reasonable fortitude who might have seen it.’
The judges reserved their decision to a later unspecified date.