I became aware of a man called Paul Chambers today. As best I can tell, Paul is an entirely normal sort of chap. A bit like me, a bit like you. He has an active online presence, including regular updates to Twitter.
In January of this year, after heavy snowfall closed his local airport in the same week he was planning to fly to meet a potential girlfriend for the first time, 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’m blowing the airport sky high!
Your views on that particular comment will vary, of course. You might think he was a bit of an idiot for posting something like that publicly. Some people, including the judge, Jonathan Bennett, have said that the message was of a ‘menacing nature in the context of the time we live in’ and that Paul deserved his conviction.
That’s right, conviction. As in, criminal conviction. Paul has been convicted under the communications act for the offence of sending a menacing message, and is now the proud owner of a criminal record and a £1000 fine. For a silly, throwaway comment. The fallout has resulted in him losing his job and having his accountancy studies curtailed due to the criminal conviction. In other words, it has royally screwed up his life.
But let’s be clear here. It isn’t the silly comment that has dragged Paul into a complete nightmare. To blame the tweet, or to blame Paul, is to miss the larger point. The guilty party here isn’t Paul but our cracked, absurdist society in which an obvious (if not particularly witty) slapstick comment leads to a criminal conviction. The guilt lies with a judge and a police force, so out of touch that they don’t understand the context of social media systems such as Twitter and can’t comprehend how it relates to modern communications – ironic given the name of the act that convicted Paul. The guilt lies with Tony Blair, George Bush and all their followers that have helped to create a society of fear, paranoia and tension.
There were people that saw this coming. People that pointed out the gradual erosion of civil liberties. People that noted how the police were using anti-terror powers to arrest people at Labour conferences simply because they raised a voice of dissent. People that campaign against the Digital Economy Bill when they noticed that it contained clauses that had the potential to destroy the UK internet.
Others said that there was nothing to worry about. That as long as you didn’t do anything wrong you had nothing to fear. That you’d only complain if you were a terrorist, a criminal or a pirate.
The case of Paul Chambers sets a precedent that cannot be allowed to stand. The police and the judge in this case clearly do not understand Twitter (apparently Paul had to explain how it worked to the police when he was arrested), and possibly don’t understand general human behaviour either (how many times have we all said or written ridiculously hyperbolic statements of this sort?). Not only should Paul be cleared, but those involved in the investigation and conviction should be closely examined for wasting public money and general incompetence.
The Crown Prosecution Service exists to protect society. This conviction serves only to dismantle society and replace it with a collective sense of fear – a fear of the state that will make the fear of terrorism seem inconsequential.
Stephen Fry has already offered to pay the fine on Paul’s behalf, but that won’t cover everything, especially an appeal and retrial. You can donate to a fund that will help Paul pay his legal costs here.
Paul himself has written about his experience here. (Major kudos to the Guardian for giving him this opportunity to state his case)
If you need further convincing, read Graham Linehan’s thoughts on the case here.
Here’s a more technical analysis of the arrest and conviction process in Paul’s case.
You can complain to the CPS here.
Finally, you can follow Paul on twitter. I recommend it – he’s really quite funny.
It’s time to mobilise in Paul Chambers’ defense. The UK justice system has failed him utterly and can’t be allowed to continue in this manner. If we let this stand they’ll be coming for us next.