Sunday, 14 November 2010
I guess the joke is on me
I had arguments with a few people on the Guardian Comment-Is-Free back in May shortly after Paul Chambers decided to appeal his conviction. I recall one person in particular telling me that Paul would be stupid to appeal his conviction. The decision was right and he would surely lose, he said. I said I'd be willing to bet £1000 that the appeal would succeed. I was that confident. Well, I guess the joke's on me. Now we are facing a very difficult situation indeed. The use of section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 to prosecute Twitterers making offhand remarks has been twice legitimized in court. Judge Jacqueline Davies in denying the appeal stated that Paul's tweet 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." I am indeed alarmed, but not in the way she suggests. What do we do? Where do you draw the line?
I've decided on a bit of a legal thought experiment and I invite anyone to chime in with your views on this. It goes like this:
Suppose I place an update on Twitter saying "I've decided to blow up Heathrow Airport. I'll post a photo as proof once I've done it." And let's say that what I had in mind all along was to take a photo of Heathrow Airport (perhaps even an aerial shot from Google maps) and blow it up onto an oversized printout. Let's suppose I manage to do this and several hours or perhaps even days later I pose in front of my blown up photo and then post this to Twitter in a way that makes it obvious that it is connected to the earlier tweet. Have I caused menace? Is this a suitable application of section 127? It could be argued quite reasonably that I must be aware that this is couched in terms likely to cause menace, particularly with my close following of the Chambers case.
This is of course assuming I didn't get arrested before I had a chance to post my photo. I think it would be quite difficult to talk my way out of it in that case, unless I could prove my intentions by showing a piece of registered mail to myself setting it all out. Even still, does my intention here mitigate my action? I must surely have been aware that someone might feel menaced by my tweet. Would I have committed a crime? If so, would that be just? Thoughts please.