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Let’s blow free speech restrictions sky high

Note to Twitterers: freedom of speech must extend to offensive comments as well as jokes about airports.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Politics

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Doncaster Crown Court’s decision last week to refuse the appeal of a man convicted of making threatening statements on Twitter is bad news for freedom of expression. Many Twitter-users have pointed this out. Yet events over the past year suggest that while Twitter can be used to demand free speech – as the reaction to the appeal verdict shows – it can also echo the censoriousness that runs through society today.

Paul Chambers, a 26-year-old finance manager, had been planning a trip to Ireland to meet a woman he’d met online when he heard that Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster was closed due to snow. He posted the following message on his Twitter account: ‘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!’ Nothing more than a casual expression of frustration that was not in any way intended to be taken seriously by anyone: just the kind of think-out-loud remark that is made all the time on Twitter. Indeed, the very purpose of the website is to allow such spontaneous, informal messaging.

The remark was drawn to the attention of the head of security at Robin Hood Airport, who also did not take it seriously. Nonetheless, the incident was passed on to the police and, in January this year, Chambers was arrested on suspicion of making an apparent bomb hoax. As Chambers described in an article for the Guardian in May: ‘Call me naive or ignorant, but the heightened state of panic over terror issues was not something I considered as relating to me in any way – until I was arrested, shoved into a police car in front of colleagues, hauled off to Doncaster police station, and interviewed for the rest of the day. My iPhone, laptop and desktop hard drive were confiscated during a search of my house. It was terrifying and humiliating.’

However, as legal commentator David Allen Green noted in May, while the authorities wanted to prosecute Chambers, actually proving that his off-the-cuff remark amounted to a bomb hoax would have been extremely difficult. So instead, Chambers was charged under the Communications Act 2003 with making a menacing communication, an offence created with the aim of protecting women from nuisance phone calls.

He was convicted in May and ordered to pay £1,000 in fines and costs. As a result of the case, he lost his job and his plan to work as an accountant has been ruined. However, surely someone along the line would understand that his post had been in jest? Not a bit of it. On Thursday, at Doncaster Crown Court, Judge Jacqueline Davies declared: ‘Anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences.’ She ruled that Chambers’ Twitter message was ‘menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.’ Not only was Chambers’ conviction confirmed, but he was saddled with paying the additional costs of the appeal.

The ruling brought outrage from other, high-profile Twitter users, including comedians Dara O’Briain, Stephen Fry and David Mitchell. By Friday, a thread was raging on Twitter with users re-tweeting Chambers’ original statement under the hashtag #IAmSpartacus – a nod to the finale of the Kirk Douglas movie when the defeated slave army all claim to be Spartacus in solidarity with their leader, even though they knew they risked being executed. This tweet meme soon became a news story in its own right.

The ruling against Chambers is of course a bone-headed one and a threat to the freedom of social network users to speak their minds. Although tweets are broadcast to the world, they are still a personal matter that should not be regulated by the state. As such, the #IAmSpartacus response is to be welcomed as an instinctive reaction to the use of the law in this manner.

However, while the reaction to Chambers’ experience is a healthy one, it relies rather heavily on the facts of this particular case. It would be better to argue that any expression of opinion should be regarded as being protected from state intervention. For example, take the case of Gareth Compton, a Conservative councillor in Birmingham. After hearing the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown talking on BBC Radio Five Live about human rights, Compton tweeted: ‘Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really. #R5L’

Compton is, not unexpectedly, being hauled over the coals by his party for his off-colour remark. But the comment was every bit as tongue-in-cheek as Chambers’, though even less amusing. Yet it is clear there is far less sympathy for Compton, who was arrested on Thursday under the same law that Chambers was convicted under. To his credit, former Lib Dem MP Evan Harris noted the similarities between the two cases, arguing that in relation to the 2003 Act, ‘a change in the law is needed because the chill on irreverent expression on the internet will remain’ regardless of the outcome of the two cases themselves.

But what if Chambers or Compton hadn’t been joking? Allowing the authorities to decide what may or may not be said online is a bad idea, full stop, even if the comments made are widely deemed to be offensive.

Moreover, as the reaction to Jan Moir’s comments in the Daily Mail about the late Boyzone singer Stephen Gateley showed, Twitter users can just as easily be censorious in one context and upholders of free expression in another. Moir’s article was widely regarded as anti-gay, provoking a storm of angry commentary from Stephen Fry and Charlie Brooker, particularly on Twitter. With a thousand appeals to the Press Complaints Commission to take action against Moir, there seem to be some things which, in the eyes of the Twitterati, you are not allowed to say (see I am offended, therefore I am, by Tim Black).

Let’s hope that both Chambers and Compton are eventually exonerated, and that the 2003 Act is changed to remove this cloud hanging over free comment online. More than that, we need to accept, as a society, the right of anyone to express a view, no matter how much it is deemed offensive to some.

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Topics Politics

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