Twitter Joke Trial

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Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.svg
Court High Court of Justice (Queen's Bench Division)
Full case name Paul Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions
Decided 27 July 2012
Citation(s) [2012] EWHC 2157 (QB)
Transcript(s) High Court transcript
Case history
Appealed from Doncaster magistrates court
Case opinions
The message was not objectively menacing; the conviction was therefore quashed.[1]
Court membership
Judges sitting Lord Judge
Mr Justice Owen
Mr Justice Griffith Williams
Keywords

The case of R v Paul Chambers (appealed to the High Court as Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions), better known as the Twitter Joke Trial, is a United Kingdom legal case centred on an incident in which Paul Chambers was convicted of using Twitter to send a "public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003". The conviction was widely condemned as unfair,[2][3][4] and referred to as a miscarriage of justice;[5] and was appealed three times. After the first two appeals failed, the judgement in the third appeal, in London's High Court, was in Chambers' favour, resulting in the quashing of his conviction.[6]

Background[edit]

During late December 2009 and early January 2010, cold weather had resulted in considerable disruption across northern England. Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire was one of many airports which was forced to cancel flights. On 6 January 2010,[7][8][9] an intending traveller, Paul Chambers (who was 28 at the time[10]), posted a message on Twitter:

A week later, an off-duty manager at the airport found the message while doing an unrelated computer search.[9] The airport management considered the message to be "not credible" as a threat,[9] but contacted the police anyway. Chambers was arrested by anti-terror police at his office,[9] his house was searched and his mobile phone, laptop and desktop hard drive were confiscated.[11] He was later charged with "sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003".[9][12] On 10 May, he was found guilty at Doncaster magistrates court,[9] fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs.[10] He lost his job as a consequence.[11]

Response[edit]

A number of legal commentators and celebrities criticised the conviction and called for it to be overturned. They include journalist Nick Cohen, who drew comparison with Milan Kundera's anti-communist novel The Joke;[13] television writer Graham Linehan;[14] and the comedian and television presenter Stephen Fry, who offered to pay Chambers' fine[15] and subsequent legal bills.[16][17]

First appeal[edit]

Chambers lost an appeal against his conviction. Judge Jacqueline Davies, sitting with two magistrates,[10] heard his appeal in Doncaster Crown Court; she judged that the tweet contained "menace" and that Chambers must have known that it might be taken seriously.[18] Thousands of Twitter users responded by reposting Chambers' Tweet including the hashtag #iamspartacus,[19][20] in reference to the climactic "I am Spartacus!" scene in the 1960 film Spartacus.

High Court appeal[edit]

A further appeal to the High Court was heard on 8 February 2012, in which the two judge panel of Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Irwin failed to reach a decision after initially reserving judgement.[21][22] The "appeal by case stated" was made by Chambers' barristers, Ben Emmerson QC and Sarah Przybylska, and David Allen Green (who acted for Chambers in earlier proceedings[23]) acted as his solicitor, through Preiskel & Co LLP.[24] The appeal was entirely on points of law and centred on the correct interpretation of section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003.[22]

Second High Court appeal[edit]

Chambers (centre), with Al Murray (left) and Stephen Fry (right) outside the High Court on 27 June 2012

A second High Court appeal, before a panel of three judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, opened on 22 June 2012.[25] On 27 June, they announced a reserved judgement.[26] Chambers arrived at court accompanied by Stephen Fry and the comedian Al Murray.[26]

Chambers' conviction was quashed on 27 July 2012.[6] The approved judgement concluded that "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 [of the 2003 Act]".[27] Accordingly, the appeal against conviction was "allowed on the basis that this 'tweet' did not constitute or include a message of a menacing character".[27][28]

It later emerged that staff at the Crown Prosecution Service had been in favour of dropping the case, to the point of informing Chambers, via his solicitor, that they would not oppose the final appeal, but had then been overruled by their head of service, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer.[29] Chambers' MP, Louise Mensch, called for a House of Commons committee to investigate Starmer's behaviour.[29]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Martin Beckford (27 July 2012). "Twitter joke trial conviction quashed in High Court". The Telegraph. Retrieved 9 September 2012. 
  2. ^ "The Twitter "Bomb Hoax" case: worse than we thought?". 2010-03-02. Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  3. ^ Mitchell, David (16 May 2010). "Sacked and fined £1,000 for a joke about an airport? - David Mitchell column - The Observer". Guardian (London). Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  4. ^ Cohen, Nick (19 September 2010). "Twitter and terrifying tale of modern Britain - The Observer". Guardian (London). Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  5. ^ "Jack of Kent: Why the Paul Chambers case matters". Blogger. Retrieved 19 September 2010. 
  6. ^ a b "Robin Hood Airport tweet bomb joke man wins case". BBC News. 27 July 2012. Retrieved 9 September 2012. 
  7. ^ Hughes and Walsh, Mark and Jason (10 January 2010). "Twitter joke led to Terror Act arrest and airport life ban - Home news - The Independent". Independent (London). Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  8. ^ Walsh, Jason (Jan 22, 2010). "Twitter terror? Man arrested for venting about canceled flight – World news – The Christian Science Monitor". Boston, USA: The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved July 4, 2012. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f Wainwright, Martin (10 May 2010). "Wrong kind of tweet leaves air traveller £1,000 out of pocket - UK news - The Guardian". Guardian (London). Retrieved 17 September 2010. 
  10. ^ a b c "John Betjeman would have been prosecuted under Twitter joke laws, court hears". The Daily Telegraph. 2012-06-27. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  11. ^ a b c Chambers, Paul (11 May 2010). "My tweet was silly, but the police reaction was absurd - The Guardian". Guardian (London). Retrieved 17 September 2010. 
  12. ^ http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2003/21/section/127
  13. ^ Cohen, Nick (2010-09-19). "Twitter and terrifying tale of modern Britain". The Observer. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  14. ^ Linehan, Graham (2010-05-11). "Prague, 1965". Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  15. ^ Wainwright, Martin (2010-11-11). "Stephen Fry leads protest tweets against Twitter joke verdict | Technology | guardian.co.uk". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  16. ^ Siddique, Haroon (12 November 2010). "#IAmSpartacus campaign explodes on Twitter in support of airport joker". The Guardian (London). 
  17. ^ "Stephen Fry says British judges don't understand Twitter". BBC News (London). 8 February 2012. 
  18. ^ Wainwright, Martin (2010-11-11). "Twitter joke trial: Paul Chambers loses appeal against conviction". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 12 November 2010. 
  19. ^ Siddique, Haroon (2010-11-12). "#IAmSpartacus campaign explodes on Twitter in support of airport joker". The Guardian (London). Retrieved 12 November 2010. 
  20. ^ "Thousands of Twitter users express support for Chambers". 2010-11-12. Retrieved 12 November 2010. 
  21. ^ "the Twitter Joke Trial". Retrieved 3 December 2011. 
  22. ^ a b Alllen Green, David (2012-02-07). "Must read posts on the Twitter Joke Trial appeal". New Statesman. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  23. ^ "David Allen Green - Profile from Preiskel.com". Retrieved 7 April 2011. 
  24. ^ "High Court Date for "Twitter Joke Trial"". New Statesman. 2011-09-08. Retrieved 8 September 2011. 
  25. ^ Allen Green, David (2012-06-22). "The "Twitter Joke Trial" returns to the High Court". New Statesman. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  26. ^ a b "Paul Chambers 'blow up' airport tweet appeal judgement reserved". BBC Online. 2012-06-27. Retrieved 27 June 2012. 
  27. ^ a b "Approved Judgment". 2012-07-27. 
  28. ^ "Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions [2012] EWHC 2157 (QB) (27 July 2012)". BAILII. 2012-07-27. Retrieved 2012-07-27. 
  29. ^ a b Cohen, Nick (2012-07-28). "'Twitter joke' case only went ahead at insistence of DPP". The Observer. Retrieved 28 July 2012. 

External links[edit]