Twitter joke trial

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Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions
Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom.svg
CourtHigh Court of Justice (Queen's Bench Division)
Full case namePaul Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions
Decided27 July 2012
Citation(s)[2012] EWHC 2157 (QB)
Transcript(s)High Court transcript
Case history
Appealed fromDoncaster Magistrates' Court
Case opinions
The message was not objectively menacing; the conviction was therefore quashed.[1]
Court membership
Judges sitting

R v Paul Chambers (appealed to the High Court as Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions), popularly known as the Twitter Joke Trial, was a United Kingdom legal case centred on the conviction of a man under the Communications Act 2003 for posting a joke about destroying an airport to Twitter, a message which police regarded as "menacing". The conviction in the Magistrates' court was widely condemned as a miscarriage of justice,[2][3][4][5] but was upheld on appeal to the Crown Court. Chambers appealed against the Crown Court decision to the High Court, which ultimately quashed the conviction.[6]


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, then aged 26,[10] who was planning to fly to Northern Ireland to meet his then girlfriend (later wife), posted a message on Twitter:

Paul Chambers Twitter

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!!

6 January 2010[11]

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] As a consequence he lost his job[11] as an administrative and financial supervisor at a car parts company.[13]


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;[14] television writer Graham Linehan;[15] and the comedian and television presenter Stephen Fry, who offered to pay Chambers's fine[16] and subsequent legal bills.[17][18]


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.[19] Thousands of Twitter users responded by reposting Chambers' Tweet including the hashtag #iamspartacus,[20][21] in reference to the climactic "I am Spartacus!" scene in the 1960 film Spartacus.

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.[22][23] The appeal by case stated was made by Chambers' barristers, Ben Emmerson QC and Sarah Przybylska; David Allen Green, who acted for Chambers in earlier proceedings,[24] also acted as his solicitor, through Preiskel & Co LLP.[25] The appeal was entirely on points of law and centred on the correct interpretation of section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003.[23]

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.[26] One of the arguments made by Chambers' barrister for this last appeal, John Cooper QC, was that if the tweet was "menacing" so was John Betjeman's poem, "Slough", pleading "Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!".[27] He also asked whether Shakespeare would have been prosecuted if he had tweeted his line from Henry VI, Part 2 (Act IV, Scene 2), "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers".[27] The latter reportedly drew laughter from the judges. On 27 June, the judges announced a reserved judgement.[28] Chambers arrived at court accompanied by Stephen Fry and the comedian Al Murray.[28]

Chambers's 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]".[29] Accordingly, the appeal against conviction was "allowed on the basis that this 'tweet' did not constitute or include a message of a menacing character".[29][30]

It has been claimed by sources talking to The Guardian 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 the head of the service, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer.[31] Chambers' MP, Louise Mensch, called for a House of Commons committee to investigate Starmer's behaviour.[31] However, a spokesperson for the CPS said that Starmer had not taken part in decisions about the case.[31]

Impact of the case[edit]

The case led to a review of the guidance for the Crown Prosecution Service of their use of Section 127 and other speech related offences for online content, which attempted to narrow the use of the section in prosecutions. The "grossly offensive" test has remained controversial and has been further reviewed by the Law Commission, which is[needs update] examining current offences to "improve the protection afforded to victims" while providing "better safeguards for freedom of expression".[32]

See also[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?". The Lawyer. 2 March 2010. 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". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 19 September 2010.
  4. ^ Cohen, Nick (19 September 2010). "Twitter and terrifying tale of modern Britain - The Observer". The 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 (22 January 2010). "Twitter terror? Man arrested for venting about canceled flight – World news – The Christian Science Monitor". Boston, USA: The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 4 July 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". The 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. 27 June 2012. 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". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 17 September 2010.
  12. ^ "Communications Act 2003". Retrieved 17 March 2016.
  13. ^ Sarah Lyall (2010). "Briton Loses Twitter Case, but Wins Following". New York Times. He was fired from his job as an administrative and financial supervisor at a car-parts company.
  14. ^ Cohen, Nick (19 September 2010). "Twitter and terrifying tale of modern Britain". The Observer. Retrieved 27 June 2012.
  15. ^ Linehan, Graham (11 May 2010). "Prague, 1965". Retrieved 27 June 2012.
  16. ^ Wainwright, Martin (11 November 2010). "Stephen Fry leads protest tweets against Twitter joke verdict | Technology |". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 June 2012.
  17. ^ Siddique, Haroon (12 November 2010). "#IAmSpartacus campaign explodes on Twitter in support of airport joker". The Guardian. London.
  18. ^ "Stephen Fry says British judges don't understand Twitter". BBC News. London. 8 February 2012.
  19. ^ Wainwright, Martin (11 November 2010). "Twitter joke trial: Paul Chambers loses appeal against conviction". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 12 November 2010.
  20. ^ Siddique, Haroon (12 November 2010). "#IAmSpartacus campaign explodes on Twitter in support of airport joker". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 12 November 2010.
  21. ^ "Thousands of Twitter users express support for Chambers". Mashable. 12 November 2010. Retrieved 12 November 2010.
  22. ^ "the Twitter Joke Trial". Retrieved 3 December 2011.
  23. ^ a b Alllen Green, David (7 February 2012). "Must read posts on the Twitter Joke Trial appeal". New Statesman. Retrieved 27 June 2012.
  24. ^ "David Allen Green - Profile from". Retrieved 7 April 2011.
  25. ^ "High Court Date for "Twitter Joke Trial"". New Statesman. 8 September 2011. Retrieved 8 September 2011.
  26. ^ Allen Green, David (22 June 2012). "The "Twitter Joke Trial" returns to the High Court". New Statesman. Retrieved 27 June 2012.
  27. ^ a b Booth, Robert (27 June 2012). "Twitter joke humorous not menacing, high court judges told". The Guardian. Retrieved 27 July 2017.
  28. ^ a b "Paul Chambers 'blow up' airport tweet appeal judgement reserved". BBC Online. 27 June 2012. Retrieved 27 June 2012.
  29. ^ a b "Approved Judgment" (PDF). 27 July 2012. Archived (PDF) from the original on 27 January 2016.
  30. ^ "Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions [2012] EWHC 2157 (QB) (27 July 2012)". BAILII. 27 July 2012. Retrieved 27 July 2012.
  31. ^ a b c Cohen, Nick (28 July 2012). "'Twitter joke' case only went ahead at insistence of DPP". The Observer. Retrieved 28 July 2012.
  32. ^ "Reform of the Communications Offences". Law Commission.

External links[edit]