Just Joking – be careful what you say on Twitter

August 6, 2012

Paul Chambers was planning to fly from Doncaster's Robin Hood Airport on 15 January 2010.  On 6 January 2010, on hearing that the airport had closed because of bad weather, he posted the following tweet:

"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!"

On 11 January 2010, the duty manager responsible for security at the airport found the tweet while searching for tweets relating to the airport. He reported it to his manager who graded it as a non-credible threat, but reported it to the airport police as a matter of standard practice. The airport police took no action but referred it to South Yorkshire police, who, on 13 January 2010, arrested Mr Chambers on suspicion of involvement in a bomb hoax, seven days after the message was tweeted. Mr Chambers said that the tweet was intended as a joke.

Subsequently, the Crown Court convicted Mr Chambers of sending a message of a "menacing character" via a public electronic communication network, contrary to the Communications Act.

Mr Chambers appealed to the High Court.  In a victory for common sense, the High Court decided that the message lacked menace because it did not create fear or apprehension in those to whom it was communicated or who might reasonably be expected to see it. It was posted on Twitter for widespread reading, as a conversation piece for Mr Chambers to draw attention to himself and his predicament. Although it was addressed to "you", meaning those responsible for the airport, it was not sent to anyone at the airport or to anyone responsible for airport or public security. The language and punctuation was inconsistent with it being a serious threat, and it was also unusual for the person making a terrorist threat to be readily identifiable and to make the threat with ample time for it to be reported and extinguished.

It was also relevant that no one who read the message in the few days after it appeared thought anything of it. The High Court considered that the Crown Court had placed too much weight on the way that some people might react, rather than on the effect the message actually had on those who saw it. The men responsible for security at the airport had shown no anxiety or urgency in dealing with it and nor had the airport police or the South Yorkshire police.

This is the first time the High Court has considered the offence created by the Communications Act in the context of messages of a menacing character.  It clarifies that, in considering whether an offence has been committed, you need to consider the actual effect the message has on those who read it as well as the potential effect on some people.


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