Jokes. They can go wrong. Very wrong.
Sometimes it’s ok.
On 6 January 2010 a tweeter called Paul Chambers was really looking forward to meeting up with a woman he’d started a relationship with online. He really really wanted to meet her. The problem was he was in the UK and she was in Ireland and it was January. Now if you know the UK you know we don’t ‘do’ snow. It’s weird white stuff we only see on xmas cards. Most of all roads and airports just don’t /do/ snow. So on hearing that his local airport was closed Paul Chambers tweeted:
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!!
Then you know what happened?
Then more nothing.
Then a bit later a bit more nothing.
Then several days later while searching for tweets about ‘Robin Hood Airport’ staff found the tweet. Then things got bad for Mr Chambers. Bad as in 4 2 years later he’s in the High Court in front of the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales – and that’s gotta count as bad in most people’s books.
So, to cut to the law – Chambers was charged and then convicted under the 2003 Communications Act. This says that you can’t send a message that's menacing, grossly offensive, indecent or obscene using a public commutations network.
As you may imagine this conviction freighted the bejebus out of anyone and everyone who’s concerned with human rights, free speech, jokes on twitter and what one man (or woman) might say when they want to get into the pants of another (man or woman or both).
This in turn resulted in some high-powered legal minds in the UK taking the case on and fighting it all the way to the High Court. It also resulted in comedians taking a stand on what they can legally joke and about a twitter campaign using the slogan ‘this might be a joke’.
If you are a law nerd and you want to read the full judgment, you can find it here: http://www.judiciary.gov.uk/Resources/JCO/Documents/Judgments/chambers-v-dpp.pdf
If you are a only a bit of a nerd and you want to read my blow-by-blow summary of the law, it’s up on tVPN here: http://www.virtualpolicy.net/twitterjoketrial.html
But for the rest of you there are three bits of the case that got legally interesting:
Q: Is Twitter a public communications network?
While it’s a privately held company it relies on the internet and the public timeline is available to anyone that want’s to look at it. The fact that tweet (a message) later becomes ‘content also does not matter.
Q: Was the message menacing?
Here the High Court basically said – look, it was a joke. It looked like a joke, everyone knew it was a joke. Even the security staff at the airport when they did read it did not think it was a threat as they did absolutely nothing in respect of the security of the airport. What’s more it could not be considered a terrorist threat as terrorist don't issue bomb warnings as jokey twitters in the public timeline a week before, for everyone to see.
Q: Did the intention of the sender matter?
A: No and Yes
No – because as the message was not a menace one does not as a matter of law have to consider intent as it falls at the first hurdle. However there was an argument over whether, if it was a menace, the intention mattered. That is, if you write something and you mean it as a joke, but someone reads it as a threat have you committed a criminal act. In short the High Court said that in this case intent would matter as many things are said as jokes that someone might read as a threat but we can’t go criminalising that.
Well – phew. That's what.
If the conviction had been held there would be wide spread worry about what you can say on twitter. And if there’s worry about what you can say on twitter, they were be worry about Facebook, and then World of Warcraft and pretty much anything.
Sure the legal arguments would be different – is WoW or Facebook sufficiently closed to make it not a ‘public network’. Would a threat like ‘I’m going to shoot that Night Elf / Wookie / Imperial Guard in the face’ be sufficiently RP enough for it to look like a joke but not quite a joke, but still not literal etc etc.
Things may have got tricky out there.
Now, as Shakespeare should have said “Let’s kill all the Alliance” (coz you know he would have been Horde and hard core RP), and spare a few of the lawyers eh :)