I wrote about Paul Chambers back in May, a few months after he’d been convicted or sending a threatening message via Twitter by the CPS, resulting in him losing his job and receiving a criminal record.
While Paul’s conviction is worrying enough as it is, given the obviously jokey and hyperbolic nature of his tweet, the wider implications are yet more severe. Particularly:
- Security staff, police and – primarily – the Crown Prosecution Service seem to be incapable of distinguishing between a harmless joke (even if it was in poor taste) and a serious terrorist threat. This not only means that innocent people like Paul get prosecuted over nothing but that the authorities have almost no chance of identifying and stopping real terrorists. Why do we give such incompetent organisations the responsibility of protecting us, both from external and internal threats? It would seem that the CPS’ woeful lack of comprehension of human behaviour and their abuse of the justice system are far greater threats than isolated terrorists.
- The nature of the conviction in this case means that anybody can be convicted of the same offence if they write down a similar message in a digital form. Crucially, intent and context do not matter, according to the judge. In other words, simply quoting Paul’s tweet in a blog so as to discuss the case could actually get you convicted of the same thing. This hasn’t happened, yet, but it does serve to highlight the flimsy and ridiculous situation of Paul’s conviction. Should the government or the CPS be slightly less jovial than the current one, however, these laws would give them the power to crack down on any digital communications they even vaguely disliked.
Paul’s appeal is today.
Anybody that likes being able to communicate via digital messages (email, Facebook, twitter, text messages, video, music…you name it) has an interest in this case.
If you’d like to offer Paul some support, at 10am there will be a minor flurry of civil disobedience on Twitter. At that point anybody so inclined should tweet the following:
Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! #twitterjoketrial Will the police now arrest me?
That is a line from Betjeman’s celebrated poem ‘Slough’. By the same application of law that convicted Paul Chambers, simply quoting Betjeman can get you arrested, charge and convicted as well.
The point, of course, is to highlight the absurdity of Paul’s conviction and how it simply cannot stand. The aim is to highlight how intent and conviction are always of utmost importance, far more so than the individual words.
Here’s hoping that today’s appeal goes well for Paul. This is a test case that will tell us a lot about how the UK’s legal system views the internet and 21st century communications in general.