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Social media and the criminal law (1)

Colin Gibson


United Kingdom

Social media and the criminal law

Rhys Griffiths is a Partner and a member of the Defamation Group at Field Fisher Waterhouse LLP. Rhys acts for both Claimants and Defendants and has particular expertise in online issues having acted successfully for Amazon in McGrath v Amazon and ADVFN in Smith v ADVFN.


This has been the year in which the criminal law has tried to get to grips with social media.  There have been a number of high profile prosecutions of individuals who have posted abhorrent messages on social media websites.  

In the past, internet trolls have operated on the basis that the internet allows them to operate outside the normal bounds of respect and civility.  It is easy to see why – in this virtual environment, where there is no proximity to the victim and often anonymity for the poster, there is detachment from real life.  The poster is therefore emboldened to do things which he would not otherwise do.

But the internet is real life.  The effect of malicious, racist and abusive messages can be devastating for the victim.  There is growing public concern and intolerance of such conduct.  Recent prosecutions also show that the Crown Prosecution Service ("CPS") is alive to this issue and is willing to take action against offenders.

This article will look at the law used by the CPS  to prosecute offenders, together with some of the practical difficulties associated with its application, before going on to summarise some forthcoming developments in this area.

The law

There are a number of laws available to prosecute individuals who post despicable messages on social media platforms.  The most commonly used is section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003. It is deceptively simple.  Section 127(1) catches a person who posts a message which is:

  • grossly offensive; or
  • of a character which is indecent, obscene or menacing.

A person found guilty can be sentenced to up to 6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of up to £5,000.

Recent examples highlight that the use of section 127(1) is leading to convictions, and that tough sentences are handed out as a result.  In May 2012, Liam Stacey lost his appeal against a sentence to 56 days imprisonment for posting racially aggravated abuse on Twitter.  The messages related to Fabrice Muamba, who suffered a cardiac arrest during a televised FA Cup match between Bolton Wanderers and Tottenham Hotspur.  In similar fashion, in October 2012 Matthew Woods was jailed for 12 weeks (cut to 8 weeks on appeal) for posting offensive jokes on Facebook about missing Welsh schoolgirl April Jones.  

The practical difficulty

The application of section 127(1) to social media platforms has not been without difficulty.  First, there is the issue of deciding where the line should be drawn and when an offensive message should be considered as criminal.  There are some who say that vile comments should not be criminal and that Mr Woods ought not to have been jailed for posting sick jokes about April Jones, no matter how unpleasant.  On the other side are those who are fed up with internet trolls and who do not believe that social media platforms should be a free for all where anything goes.  In other words, where an individual steps over the line and posts something which is not  just offensive, but is grossly offensive, the law should step in. 

The recent cases involving Mr Stacey and Mr Woods illustrate the sort of thing that the CPS and the judiciary are not prepared to tolerate.  However, on  the other side of the line is the case of Daniel Thomas, a semi-professional footballer who posted a homophobic message on Twitter about Olympic divers Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield.  Mr Thomas was arrested and interviewed by the police, but the CPS ultimately decided not to prosecute.  In making  this decision the Director of Public Prosecutions ("DPP") gave the following explanation about the sort of messages which will fall foul of the law:

"There is no doubt that the message posed by Mr Thomas was offensive and would be regarded as such by reasonable members of society. But the question for the CPS is not whether  it was offensive, but whether it was so grossly offensive that criminal charges should be brought.  The distinction is an important one and not easily made. Context and circumstances are highly relevant and as the European Court of Human Rights observed in the case of Handyside v UK (1976), the right to freedom of expression includes the right to say things or express opinions "…that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of the population"."

In the case of Mr Thomas, the CPS explained that the context and circumstances of the tweet meant that a prosecution was not appropriate.  The DPP explained that:

"This was, in essence, a one-off offensive Twitter message, intended for family and friends, which made its way into the public domain. It was not intended to reach Mr Daley or Mr Waterfield, it was not part of a campaign, it was not intended to incite others and Mr Thomas removed it reasonably swiftly and has expressed remorse. Against that background, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, Jim Brisbane, has concluded that on a full analysis of the context and circumstances in which this single message was sent, it was not so grossly offensive that criminal charges need to be brought. 

Before reaching a final decision in this case, Mr Daley and Mr Waterfield were consulted by the CPS and both indicated that they did not think this case needed a prosecution."

The distinction is not always easy to make between  what is criminal and what is not.  A high profile example of this is what became known as the "Twitter joke trial".  The case involved Paul Chambers, who at the time in question was 26 years old and a regular user of the Twitter website.  On 15 January 2010, Mr Chambers planned to fly to Belfast to visit his girlfriend.  However, on 6 January 2010 he learnt that Robin Hood Airport had closed due to adverse weather conditions and so he tweeted the following message:

"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!!"

The tweet was visible to Mr Chambers' 600 odd followers but nothing happened immediately.  However, some 5 days later an off-duty security manager for  Robin Hood Airport discovered the tweet when searching generally for tweets about the Airport.  The security manager escalated the matter internally and it eventually reached the airport police.  They took no action but forwarded it to the South Yorkshire Police, who proceeded to arrest Mr Chambers on suspicion of involvement in a bomb hoax.  Upon being interviewed by the police, Mr Chambers maintained that his tweet was only meant to be a joke.  Nevertheless, the police referred the matter to the CPS, who decided to charge Mr Chambers for sending a "menacing" message contrary to section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2007.

Mr Chambers was convicted in the Magistrates Court and failed to overturn that decision in the Crown Court.  However, on appeal to the High Court the conviction was eventually overturned.  In doing so, the High Court held that for something to be characterised as "menacing" it needs to create fear or anguish of something unpleasant likely to happen.  In this case, there was simply no evidence of that.  The airport security team, airport police and South Yorkshire Police all believed the tweet to be nothing other than a foolish joke.  Accordingly, on this basis there was simply no reason to say that the tweet was menacing and so the appeal succeeded.

Mr Chambers' case drew a great deal of press attention, not least because Mr Chambers was supported by Stephen Fry and Al Murray.  However, it gives a stark illustration of the difficulties faced by the CPS in deciding which side of the line a particular case falls.

The future

The growth of the number of websites which host  user generated content means that there is a vast amount of material out there which, on an initial reading, is grossly offensive and/or menacing and so contrary to the criminal law.  However, it cannot possibly be right that they should all be investigated.  There is not the time or the resources.  The CPS cannot police the internet. How should the CPS decide which messages warrant further investigation and prosecution, and which should just be left alone?  As the DPP said recently:

“[T]he CPS has the task of balancing the fundamental right of free speech and the need to prosecute serious wrongdoing on a case by case basis. That often involves very difficult judgment calls and, in the largely unchartered territory of social media, the CPS is proceeding on a case by case basis. In some cases it is clear that a criminal prosecution is the appropriate response to conduct which is complained about, for example where there is a sustained campaign of harassment of an individual, where court orders are flouted or where grossly offensive or threatening remarks are made and maintained. But in many other cases a criminal prosecution will not be the appropriate response. If the fundamental right to free speech is to be respected, the threshold for criminal prosecution has to be a high one and a prosecution has to be required in the public interest."

In light of these difficulties, the CPS has announced that it is to set up a consultation process aimed at gathering together the opinions of campaigners, media lawyers, academics, social media experts and law enforcement bodies.  The object of this process is to arrive at a set of guidelines which will assist the CPS to make clear and consistent decision on which cases warrant a prosecution.

It is obviously a good idea for the CPS to consult on this issue.  There are very many practical difficulties involved in applying the criminal law to social media platforms.  A sensible and pragmatic solution needs to be found and the chances of that happening are increased by having a proper consultation.  It is hoped that this will be achieved and that the guidelines will help the CPS to decide when it is worth pursuing a complaint.  At the time of writing, draft guidelines are expected at the end of 2012.

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