England and Wales: Criminalising Twitter airport joke violates free expression
27 Jun 2012
Today, 27 June, the High Court for England and Wales hears an appeal by Paul Chambers who was convicted after Tweeting about blowing up an airport. ARTICLE 19 has filed a submission urging the Court to allow the appeal arguing that criminalising jokes online is a violation of the right to freedom of expression.
“Freedom of expression protects jokes, even bad ones. Exaggeration and hyberbole are common occurrences online. Making a joke on Twitter shouldn’t result in a criminal conviction,” said Dr Agnes Callamard, executive director of ARTICLE 19.
The appeal in the case of R v. Chambers – commonly known in the UK as the ‘Twitter-Joke Trial’ - is being heard before a three-Judge panel in the High Court, who will also decide whether ARTICLE 19 is to be given permission to intervene.
In its intervening submission to the court, ARTICLE 19 has urged the court not to apply the Communications Act 2003 to criminalise legitimate free expression through the internet.
ARTICLE 19 argues that any criminal offence that restricts a person’s right to freedom of expression requires the strongest justification and that the Court should appreciate the context in which messages are posted online. Twitter is a social media site where users often post messages quickly, exaggerate reality or use humour. Paul Chambers, 28, was convicted on 10 May 2012 under the Communications Act 2003 of sending a message of a ‘menacing character’ through Twitter.
At the time that Chambers tweeted, he had approximately 600 followers on Twitter and planned to fly from Robin Hood airport in Liverpool to Belfast to visit another Twitter user he had met on the social media site.
Chambers saw a news story about the closure of the airport due to heavy snowfall and posted a tweet: “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!!”
Airport security had graded any ‘threat’ to the airport from the tweet as ‘non-credible’. The airport took no further action but passed the tweet to South Yorkshire police who arrested Mr Chambers at his work-place and he was searched, interviewed and eventually charged and convicted.
Chambers appeals his conviction on the basis that the tweet was self-evidently a joke and that he did not intend to threaten anyone or anything by posting the message on Twitter.
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