UK Court Comes To Its Senses: Realizes Tweeting A Joke About Blowing Up An Airport Is Not A Threat

from the good-for-him dept

The Paul Chambers case has made plenty of news over the past few years since he was charged for tweeting a silly statement concerning closures at his local airport, Robin Hood Airport, at which he was supposed to take a flight the following week. The now famous tweet read:

“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!!”

No one who saw it felt it was a credible threat. The 600 friends who follow Chambers on Twitter didn’t think anything of it. Six days later, someone at the airport found it while doing a regular Twitter search. Their conclusion, again, was that it was not a credible threat, but it was passed on to to the Ministry of Defense, and then to airport police, and then to a local police station. At each step of the way (until the final one), none of the people who saw it seemed to believe it was a credible threat, at all. And yet… the local police went after him anyway, roping the government into bringing charges.

Amazingly, to many of us, Chambers lost most of the early rounds, as the courts made twisted rationales for why he somehow “knew” this tweet would cause distress (even as they failed to show anyone actually distressed). However, it appears something has clicked with some courts in the UK on these issues. Chambers has now been acquitted. The full ruling (pdf and embedded below) is a worthwhile read. It starts out by laying out the timeline of events:

There was no evidence before the Crown Court to suggest that any of the followers of the appellant’s “tweet”, or indeed anyone else who may have seen the “tweet” posted on the appellant’s time line, found it to be of a menacing character or, at a time when the threat of terrorism is real, even minimally alarming. In fact nothing was done about it by anyone until 11 January 2010, some five days later when the duty manager responsible for security at Robin Hood Airport, while off duty at home, found it. Mr Duffield did not see this “tweet” on the appellant’s time line, and it was never sent to him or to the airport. Rather he was at home searching generally for any “tweets” which referred to Robin Hood Airport. In cross examination he said that he did not know whether the “tweet” was a joke or not, but as even a joke could cause major disruption it had to be investigated. Accordingly he referred the “tweet” to his manager, Mr Armson. Mr Armson was responsible for deciding whether any perceived threat to the airport should be graded as “credible” or “non-credible”. If “credible”, it was to be referred immediately to the Ministry of Defence, but if “noncredible”, as a matter of standard practice it was to be reported to the airport police. Mr Armson examined the appellant’s “tweet”. He regarded it as “non-credible”, not least because it featured the appellant’s name and, as he noted, the appellant was due to fly from the airport in the near future. Nevertheless in accordance with airport procedure he passed this “tweet” to the airport police. The airport police themselves took no action, presumably for exactly the same reason, but they decided to refer the matter on to the South Yorkshire police.

Basically, lots and lots of people saw the tweet and no one thought anything of it until a local police station decided to make an example of the guy. Even the South Yorkshire police didn’t find the tweet credible — until someone decided to arrest the guy. While the lower courts came up with all sorts of twisted rationales to support this, the High Court actually took something of a common sense approach:

We are of course well aware that the Crown Court concluded, as a matter of fact, that the message sent by the appellant was of a menacing character. Proper respect must be paid to such a finding. However, the findings do not address the unbroken pattern of evidence to be derived from the responses of those who read or must have read the message before the South Yorkshire Police investigated it. No weight appears to have been given to the lack of urgency which characterised the approach of the authorities to this problem, while the fact that those responsible for security at the airport decided to report it at all, which was treated as a significant feature, rather overlooked that this represented compliance with their duties rather than their alarmed response to the message.

It’s crazy that it had to go this far before common sense came into play, but I guess it’s better late than never.

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Comments on “UK Court Comes To Its Senses: Realizes Tweeting A Joke About Blowing Up An Airport Is Not A Threat”

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Duke (profile) says:

Minor Correction and Major Concerns

This didn’t go to the Ministry of Defence; if you read paragraph 13 of the judgment (also available in html here) the second airport security person was supposed to refer threats to the MoD if they were “credible”, but just to the airport police if “non-credible”. Which was another piece of evidence that the tweet wasn’t considered menacing.

It’s not quite clear who put pressure into bringing the charges; whether it was the local police who arrested him, or someone at the CPS (who aren’t really “government”, but the local prosecutor), but whoever it was screwed up, and it is nice to hear the High Court make that clear.

Of course, the scary thing is to wonder how often this particular offence (under s127 Communications Act 2003) is being used against “trivial” comments such as this, but which don’t get international attention. In the 2nd reading debate of the upcoming Defamation Bill, this and similar “anti-trolling” offences were discussed, and the Government minister claimed that “[s]ome 2,000 criminal prosecutions for trolling” had happened in the last year (see in column 261).

While some of these are likely genuine cases of what should be considered criminal activity, one has to wonder how many are simply people who did something a bit silly, like Paul Chambers, but who weren’t able to get international support, top lawyers and to change their guilty plea at the last minute, enabling to actually fight their case. Today’s ruling may put a damper on prosecutions under this law, but I still worry that it has been, and will continue to be used as a blunt instrument for suppressing speech online.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re: Re: Robin Hood airport

True. The actions of an insane person do not prove that “The laws aren’t working!” It just shows that the laws cannot prevent an insane person from killing a bunch of people if they get up and decide “Today is a good day to kill a lot of people!”

It’s just impossible to stop that in the real world with more laws. With better psychological counseling and less of a ‘reluctance’ (albeit one rooted in history) to institutionalize someone…. that can stop these things or prevent SOME of them.

Anonymous Coward says:

Imaginary Threats

It would be interesting to know how much of the poor old UK taxpayer’s money got wasted on this little charade. Imaginary threats are a favourite tool of the incompetent bureaucrat. All the incompetent bureaucrats who wasted their time on this should be facing official reprimand at least, preferably firing.

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