Watch what you tweet

Twitter logoThis post is slightly late, but around two weeks ago there were two cases in the news of people who had been arrested for posts or “tweets” they had written on the micro-blogging site Twitter. The first was an appeal against a sentence earlier this year by Paul Chambers, the man who tweeted that he would be “blowing Robin Hood Airport sky high” if they didn’t reopen after snow in January. The second was the case of Birmingham councillor Gareth Compton who asked facetiously whether someone could stone to death writer Yasmin Alibhai-Brown following comments she had made during a radio interview.

Now clearly both of these comments would be pretty abhorrent if there was any real intent to carry out the threats. However, anyone who looks at the remarks in context can see they they were not supposed to be taken seriously, a view even shared by some of the arresting police officers in the Chambers case. Councillor Compton, on the other hand, actually meant the exact opposite to what he tweeted. Ms Alibhai-Brown had stated in the interview that western governments had no right to criticise countries such as Iran that stoned women to death for adultery, so Mr Compton’s tweet was intended to express his complete opposition to that view. No-one in their right mind would think he was calling for anyone to be subjected to stoning; rather that such a punishment is not justified under any circumstances, and that we have every right to criticise countries that use it.

Both men could without a doubt have chosen wiser ways to express themselves, yet many people across the country must make similar remarks in conversations every day without a team of police officers knocking at their doors. It was the fact that the messages were sent electronically that caused them to fall foul of the Communications Act 2003, which states that it’s an offence to send “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.” The problem is that, while people who tweet may think they are simply sending the message to their Twitter followers, in fact the message is visible to anyone online, and searchable too. Anyone could see the tweet. Many people search for their name or that of their business to see what people are saying about them.

The way the Communications Act is being applied to these cases means that either it is far too wide-reaching, or else it is being applied to the sorts of cases that it was never envisaged such a law would cover. Either the law needs to be changed, or else some common sense needs to be applied. As things stand, however, people would be better off sharing their “menacing” jokes with their friends orally rather than through Twitter, thereby avoiding the attention of the authorities. Alternatively, if they have offensive views to express, they could always save them for a live interview on national radio.

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