Jack of Kent writes about an appeal of the man prosecuted for sending a jokey twitter message about bombing Robin Hood
Paul Chambers has now lodged an appeal at Doncaster Crown Court. He will be appealing his (in my view) wrongful conviction under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for sending an ill-conceived joke on Twitter.
The appeal will probably be heard in July or August.
If the Crown Court appeal is unsuccessful, then there can then be an appeal to the High Court, and so on until he is finally acquitted, or until he exhausts the entire appeal process.
The appeal will now be primarily undertaken by the awesomely formidable Stephen Ferguson, one of the United Kingdom's best and most sought-after defence and appellate barristers. Paul and his legal team will also have support
pro bono from myself and Andrew Sharpe in respect of the Communications Act 2003.
I think we can be optimistic for Paul's chances on appeal, but that sadly is not a certainty. There is still a lot of work to be done so that this injustice can be remedied.
Paul Chambers has felt the full force of state persecution, simply for sending a tweet
The 27-year-old worked for a car parts company in Yorkshire. He and a woman from Northern Ireland started to follow each other on Twitter. He liked her tweets and she liked his and boy met girl in a London pub. They got on as well in person as they did
in cyberspace. To the delight of their followers, Paul announced he would be flying from Robin Hood airport in Doncaster to Northern Ireland to meet her for a date.
In January, he saw a newsflash that snow had closed the airport. Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed, he tweeted to his friends. You've got a week… otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!
People joke like this all the time. When they say in a bar: I'll strangle my boyfriend if he hasn't done the washing up or post on Facebook: I'll murder my boss if he makes me work late , it does not mean that the bodies of boyfriends and
bosses will soon be filling morgues.
You know the difference between making a joke and announcing a murder, I'm sure. Apparently the forces of law and order do not.
Paul Chambers, a 27-year old trainee accountant from South Yorkshire, has launched a fightback against what is thought to be the UK's first
criminal conviction for the content of a tweet on the microblogging site.
He landed a £1,000 fine after the snow closed Robin Hood airport near Doncaster in January as he planned a trip to see Crazycolours, a Northern Irish girl he had just met online, and he tweeted to his 690 followers: 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!!
A week later, he was arrested at work by five police officers, questioned for eight hours, had his computers and phones seized and was subsequently charged and convicted of causing a menace under the Communications Act 2003.
In an appeal at Doncaster crown court, his barrister, Stephen Ferguson, said Chambers had been merely engaging in banter and craic and that far from having menacing intent, his message was a jest, a joke, a parody .
The defence applied to the judge to rule out the prosecution case that the tweet was menacing on the grounds it had not been sufficiently proved and there was no intent on Chambers' part to cause menace. Throughout proceedings, Chambers sat
largely expressionless behind toughened glass panels with a security guard beside him, only wincing slightly at the the continual repetition of his offending tweet. He nodded when Ferguson told the judge simply: The intention was innocent.
Fresh evidence emerged which was not heard at the previous trial that the police noted after Chambers was bailed there is no evidence at this stage this is anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter for only his close friends to see .
But the crown said the conviction should stand and presented evidence that Chambers had sent direct messages to his girlfriend apparently on the terrorist theme.
The court earlier heard that a senior airport official had determined [the message] was a non-credible threat after it had been found by Sean Duffield, an off-duty airport duty manager searching on-line at home. Under cross-examination, Duffield,
said the impact after he found Chambers' message was operationally nothing. It had no impact.
Chambers was not cross-examined, but the court heard extracts of his original police interview. Looking back it's daft now but that's my kind of humour, Chambers had said. Not for one second did I think anyone would even look at it. It was just
a comment made on the back of the fact that the flight had been grounded. The tweet, Stephen Ferguson pointed out, was made in the context of a young man and a young woman .
The judge and magistrates retired to consider their ruling and said the case would conclude a later date.
Twitter users angry at the conviction of a man who threatened to blow up an airport in a Twitter joke showed their support for him in
their thousands, and thumbed their nose at the law by republishing the words that landed him in trouble.
Paul Chambers, a 27-year-old accountant yesterday lost his appeal against his conviction and £1,000 fine for a comment he made in jest when he was concerned he might miss a flight to Belfast.
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!! he wrote in January.
Chambers was controversially prosecuted under a law aimed at nuisance calls – originally to protect female telephonists at the Post Office in the 1930s – rather than specific bomb hoax legislation, which requires stronger
evidence of intent.
Civil liberties lawyers criticised his conviction as did the Twitter community, which reacted with a vengeance today to his failed appeal. Under the hashtag #IAmSpartacus – a reference to the film in which Spartacus's fellow gladiators
show their solidarity with him by each proclaiming I am Spartacus – thousands of people have retweeted Chambers' original message. As a result of the show of support for Chambers the #IAmSpartacus was the second most popular
worldwide subject being referred to on Twitter at the time of writing.
The 'judge' who rejected Chambers' appeal is unlikely to see the funny side of it, having dismissed his lawyers' arguments that he should not be punished for a foolish prank . 'Judge' Jacqueline Davies called the tweet 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 . She also ordered him to pay a further £2,000 legal bill for the latest proceedings.
Communications Act 2003
A disgraceful law that Burma, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and China would be proud of.
Section 127 Improper use of public electronic communications network
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he-
(a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
(b) causes any such message or matter to be so sent.
(2) A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he-
(a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,
(b) causes such a message to be sent; or
(c) persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.
(4) Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to anything done in the course of providing a programme service (within the meaning of the Broadcasting Act 1990 (c. 42)).
This law is rarely used, and indeed the Chambers case may be the first example of the menacing aspect being raised. As far as I can see, the term menacing is undefined in law while in contrast there is a reasonably high threshold for
obscene or grossly offensive established in case law.
Whether a tweet referring to blowing up an airport or asking that someone be stoned to death is menacing or not critically depends on the context, including whether or not it was meant in jest or merely as a rhetorical
flourish and whether it actually constituted a real menace rather than a potential one. It is to be expected that the judge in the Chambers case will explain in her written judgment why she considered the words to be a menace despite the context
and explanation set out by the defence. It will be interesting to see whether she discusses context in her judgment at all.
I believe that to protect free expression of humour (however bad) on the internet there needs to be an amendment made to the law to ensure that menace convictions do not take place where messages are, in their
context, not menacing and where in addition they have not been reasonably treated as such by those to whom they may be said to target. This will require primary legislation.
Perhaps Paul Chambers will take his case to the high court and win, which will set a precedent, and perhaps Gareth Compton will not be charged. But that is no longer satisfactory because it is likely that there will be more
complaints to the police and that the police will continue to over-react. Either way, a change in the law is needed because the chill on irreverent expression on the internet will remain.
Paul Chambers is to appeal to the high court over conviction for his joke Twitter message about Robin Hood airport
Ben Emmerson QC, a senior human rights lawyer, will lead a three-strong legal team for Paul Chambers whose conviction in the so-called Twitter joke trial has become an international cause celebre.
Dismissed as a foolish prank by almost everyone involved, including police officers and airport security staff, the 140-character threat has landed Chambers, 27, with a criminal conviction and fines and costs totalling over £3,000.
He was originally convicted of menace by Doncaster magistrates this summer. The tweet read: 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!! . It was
found in a routine web search by the airport and, although rated non credible , passed to South Yorkshire police.
Chambers appealed to Doncaster crown court last month. But Judge Jacqueline Davies, sitting with two magistrates, described the message as clearly menacing and ruled that Chambers, whom she described as an unimpressive witness ,
must have known that it might be taken seriously. Davies said in her judgment: Anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences. The message is
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.
Paul Chambers, who was convicted of sending a menacing communication after he joked on Twitter that he would blow Doncaster's Robin Hood Airport sky high , has won the right to appeal the decision, Index on Censorship has learned.
It is believed the case will now go before the High Court in spring 2011.
David Allen Green, the solicitor and blogger who has been advising Chambers, welcomed the decision by Doncaster Crown Court:
This provides the High Court with a welcome opportunity to provide guidance on the correct scope of Section 127 of the Communications Act. It will be the first time the High Court will consider what a menacing communication means under this section.
Comedian Stephen Fry has said he is prepared to go to prison over the Twitter joke
trial. Fry was appearing at a benefit gig for Paul Chambers who is appealing to the High Court against his conviction for sending a supposedly menacing communication. He had tweeted: Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise
I'm blowing the airport sky high!
The benefit gig, at London's Bloomsbury Theatre, aimed to raise funds for Chambers' appeal. Freedom of speech. Among the other celebrities lending their support to the fundraising evening were Al Murray, Rufus Hound, Katy Brand and Father Ted
writer Graham Linehan.
Fry argued that Chambers' tweet was an example of Britain's tradition of self-deprecating humour and banter. Appeal funds This [verdict] must not be allowed to stand in law, Fry said, adding that he would continue to repeat Chambers'
message and face prison if that's what it takes .
Chambers' lawyer, David Allen Green, also addressed the audience, briefing them on the key details of his case. 'Speak freely' Although he was careful not to criticise the courts, he said the decision to find his client guilty does not make me
proud to be an officer of the court . We should be able to have banter. We should be able to speak freely without the threat of legal coercion.
Chambers' appeal is likely to go before the High Court later this year.
PThe appeal of Paul Chambers in the twitter joke trial is to take place on 10 November. The trainee accountant from Doncaster who was
convicted for sending supposedly threatening messages after he joked on Twitter that he would blow up Robin Hood Airport if his flight was cancelled.
The appeal before the divisional courts of the Queen's Bench comes one year after he lost his crown court appeal.
Paul Chambers, the victim of extreme police over reaction when he posted a message on Twitter joking:
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!!
He was ludicrously convicted in May 2011 of sending a menacing electronic communication at Doncaster Magistrates Court last year. An initial appeal was dismissed, leading Chambers' legal team to escalate the challenge to the High Court.
Now a two-judge hearing at the High Court has ordered a new hearing to go ahead, after being unable to reach an agreed decision.
A campaign in support of Chambers has attracted various high-profile Twitter users, including Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan and Al Murray. A support fund has also been established to help pay for his legal fees as he fights the case.
Paul Chambers who was convicted for tweeting a an obvious joke about blowing up an airport received celebrity backing as he challenged his fine in the High Court. Comedians Stephen Fry and Al Murray were on hand to lighten the mood.
The tweet in question read: 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!
The accountant said he sent the tweet to his 600 followers in a moment of frustration after the airport in South Yorkshire was closed by snow in January 2010. He claimed it was sent in jest and he never thought anyone would take his silly joke seriously.
But he was ludicrously fined £985 at Doncaster Magistrates' Court in May 2010 after being convicted of sending a message of a menacing character , contrary to provisions of the 2003 Communications Act.
Opening a new bid to overturn his conviction and sentence, John Cooper QC told Lord Judge, Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Griffith Williams that the wrong legal tests had been applied. He said that the message was sent on a timeline on the Twitter
facility to Chambers' followers and not as a randomly searched-for communication, and the relevant section of the Act was never intended by Parliament to deal with messages to the world at large .
To constitute a menace, he added, the threat must be of such a nature that the mind of an ordinary person of normal stability and courage might be influenced. Also, the person sending the message must intend to threaten the person to whom the
message was sent - in other words, it was a crime of specific intent.
The case was heard and judgement was reserved until a later date.
The famous Twitter joke conviction of Paul Chambers has been overturned on appeal, bringing welcome clarity to what is and what is not an
offence of this type.
On discovering a week before he was due to take a flight that the airport was closed due to adverse weather conditions, he 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!!
There was no evidence that this tweet alarmed any of his followers. It was picked up several days later by an employee of the airport, and it was referred to another member of staff, who took did not consider it a credible threat, but as a
matter of procedure it was referred to the airport police. They took no action, other than to refer it to South Yorkshire Police.
Chambers was arrested and charged, then later convicted of the offence of sending by a public electronic communication network a message of a menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003. He appealed from the Magistrates'
Court to the Crown Court, and then to the Divisional Court (part of the High Court).
The Court noted that in order to be menacing, as a matter of fact the people who receive or read it, or may reasonably be expected to do so, feel apprehension or fear. So, if those people instead,
...brush it aside as a silly joke, or a joke in bad taste, or empty bombastic or ridiculous banter, then it would be a contradiction in terms to describe it as a message of a menacing character. In short, a message which does not create fear or
apprehension in those to whom it is communicated, or who may reasonably be expected to see it, falls outside this provision, for the very simple reason that the message lacks menace.
A CPS spokesman said: We accept the court's reasoning and consider this to be the end of the matter.
Speaking to Index on Censorship, Paul Chambers said he felt relieved and vindicated by the decision, adding that the case should never have got this far .
Chambers's solicitor David Allen Green said: This shameful prosecution should never have been brought.
The director of public prosecutions (DPP) stopped his staff dropping the case against Paul Chambers, author of the Twitter joke about blowing up Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire, it has been claimed.
Crown Prosecution Service lawyers had been prepared to back away from one of the most controversial cases in years, telling Chambers that they no longer saw a public interest in opposing his appeal against conviction.
The CPS even sent Chambers and his solicitor, free-speech campaigner David Allen Green, papers stating that it now agreed that the case should end. However, at the last minute the DPP, former human rights lawyer Keir Starmer, overruled his
subordinates, it is alleged.
Friends of Chambers said Starmer was trying to save face by refusing to admit he was in the wrong. Louise Mensch, Chambers's MP, has called on the Commons home affairs or justice committees to investigate the DPP's behaviour.
The CPS confirmed that it spent £ 18,000 fighting Chambers. Taxpayers will also have to pay Chambers's costs.
However now that the appeal has been won, Starmer's decision seems a good one. The Chief Justice's judgement now sets a strong precedent that the police and CPS should not attempt such nasty bollox again.