Twitter joke trial: first legal breakthrough

A man convicted over a flippant comment on Twitter has failed to get the conviction overturned by a senior British court. However, the case has been sent for a fresh hearing, and today’s ruling marks the first time a judge has officially expressed doubt about the validity of Paul Chambers’ conviction.

In May 2010, UK citizen Chambers was convicted of breaching the Communications Act 2003 over a post he made after hearing that his flight might be delayed through bad weather. He wrote:

“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!!”

The tweet was spotted by airport officials and a week later police arrested him. Chambers was fined £1,000 (approximately $US1,600) and later lost his job over the incident.

The specific clause of the law Chambers breached read:

“A person is guilty of an offense if he sends 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.”

Chamber initially pleaded guilty, having been advised that the offense was legally considered “absolute”, meaning that whether or not he intended to commit it (in other words, whether he meant the tweet to be interpreted as sincere) was irrelevant. He later discovered this was not the case and that had he plead not guilty, prosecutors would have needed to prove the offense was intentional.

In November 2010, Chambers failed in an appeal to overturn the verdict. Amazingly in that hearing a judge ruled that the message was “obviously menacing” and said that there was no way Chambers could not have realized his tweet would be taken seriously.

Under British law, that failed appeal means Chambers can no longer dispute the facts of the case. However, he was able to take the case to a superior court to dispute the way in which the law was applied to his case. With the assistance of media lawyer David Allen Green and human rights barrister Ben Emmerson, Chambers asked the High Court to rule on two points:

  • whether the lower courts had followed the law correctly in deciding if the message was menacing; and
  • how the law should apply to social media postings.

The case was heard this February in the High Court’s Divisional Court, the name of which refers to the fact that more than one judge (two in this instance) hears the case. Today the court announced that the two judges had subsequently been unable to agree a ruling. The case will now go before a fresh hearing, this time with three judges.

Although deadlock might seem likely to happen regularly with a panel of two judges, Green notes that it is extremely rare in the UK’s High Court and this may be only the second time it’s happened since 2000.

Though the case remains unresolved, the key today is that by process of elimination it is clear that one judge not only believed the way Chambers was convicted was legally questionable, but that that judge refused to be talked out of that verdict. That means there is now a credible possibility, if perhaps not a probability, that the verdict will eventually be overturned.

(Screen cap credit: Matthew Taylor)

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