In a significant decision impacting free speech, a district court judge has upheld the conviction of a 27-year-old trainee accountant for joking on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport.
As previously documented on this blog, Paul Chambers was arrested in January for sending a tweet deemed ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’ contrary to the Communications Act 2003.
The tweet read: “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!!”
Chambers posted the message out of frustration that heavy snow might close Robin Hood Airport, near Doncaster, and ruin his holiday plans to visit his girlfriend in Belfast.
Appearing before district court judge Jacqueline Davies last month, Paul’s barrister Stephen Ferguson said the conviction should be overturned since the prosecution failed to prove the tweet was menacing.
“The tweet was obviously facetious,” Ferguson said. “There are at least three exclamation marks. The first to add to the slightly naughty word ‘crap’. The last two to the parody of ‘to blow the airport sky high.'”
He also drew a parallel between the tweet and the first stanza of Sir John Betjeman’s poem ‘Slough':
Come friendly bombs, fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now,
There isn’t grass to graze a cow.
Swarm over, Death!
Ferguson argued that if the court considered the tweet ‘menacing’, then surely Sir John’s poem would also qualify.
Chambers also testified, firstly, to apologise for the tweet and, secondly, to reiterate that he had no idea airport security personnel would look at it — let alone take it seriously — “because it was innocuous hyperbole.”
Judge Davies found him an “unimpressive witness”, however, and said: “Anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences.”
She also described the tweet at the centre of the case as “menacing in its content and obviously so.” She added: “It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.”
Chambers has yet to disclose whether he will pursue a further appeal. In addition to his original legal bill of £384 plus £600 costs and £1,000 fine, he must now pay a further £2,000 for the latest proceedings.
- Twitter joke trial: Paul Chambers loses appeal against conviction (Guardian)
- Free speech (Findlaw.co.uk)
- Legal Q&A (Community)
- Find a solicitor (Contact Law)
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