Do We Really Want To Criminalize Bad Jokes?

from the careful-what-you-get dept

Back in January, we wrote about the story of a guy in the UK who was arrested and banned from his local airport after making a (bad) joke on Twitter about blowing the place up. His tweet was:
"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!!"
As we said at the time, it was a really dumb statement, and I have no problem with police checking it out, but once they realized it was just a dumb joke, it seems reasonable to leave the guy alone. However, some more details are now coming to light that make the story even more questionable, and raise some issues that could impact pretty much anyone who makes a bad joke on Twitter, should someone in power want to cause them serious trouble.

Andrew sent over a few more articles about the story, that highlight that the guy wasn't actually charged for making a fake bomb threat. There actually is a law for that... but the authorities didn't charge him with that because they knew that his joke would never actually be seen as a bomb threat. Charging him under that law would require evidence that he intended to make people actually think he was intending to blow the airport up -- but no reasonable person would think that.

Instead, it appears that the police used a little-known part of the UK's Communications Act that outlaws sending a "message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character." Sound broad enough? Yeah. Suddenly, you realize he wasn't charged with making a bomb threat. He was charged with making a bad joke, that someone misinterpreted as being "menacing." The link above to TheLawyer.com goes through all this in great detail, including a pretty scary discussion with the officials who decided which law to charge the guy with, where they basically dance around the issue, even though it's pointed out to them that they're clearly stretching the meaning of that particular law well beyond what it's supposed to cover, while ignoring the actual law concerning bomb threats.

No matter, it appears that the guy has now been officially found guilty and fined £385 plus £600 costs (though, Stephen Fry has offered to pay). The fine isn't huge, but the guy now has a criminal conviction on his record for making a bad joke (not for making a bomb threat). That doesn't seem reasonable no matter how you look at it.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

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    mermaldad (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 10:31am

    Making bad jokes

    While there are some jokes that are so bad, it's almost criminal, I'd hate to criminalize bad jokes. I've made a few myself, including some in this venue (though I doubt anyone would find any of them "menacing").

    I'd consider appealing this one.

     

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      ChurchHatesTucker (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 10:48am

      Re: Making bad jokes

      Clear the comedy clubs, because they're obviously terrorist central!

      And we need to talk to you behind the curtain, mermaldad....

       

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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 11:30am

    [INSERT BAD JOKE HERE]

    Knock Knock!

    Who is it?

    The THOUGHT police your under arrest.

     

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      Trails (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 12:33pm

      Speaking of bad jokes...

      I have an under arrest? Is it all mine, or do I have to share it with you? Maybe you should get your own under arrest.

      Hang on, someone's knocking on my door.

       

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    Ima Fish (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 11:57am

    Considering that, at least by my estimate, 40% of the people on the net cannot detect or recognize sarcasm, this law is going to screw over a lot of people.

     

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    southcott, May 12th, 2010 @ 11:58am

    joke

    hehehehehahahaha

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 11:59am

    Another case of the UK heading back to 1984

    Or was it forward to the time of V for Vendetta?

     

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    ranon (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 12:19pm

    What if?

    What if he said...

    1. otherwise I will be really mad.

    2. otherwise I will do some bad shit.

    3. otherwise me and my friends will do some bad shit.

    4. otherwise me and my Pakistani friends will do some bad shit.

     

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    Comboman (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 12:47pm

    With apologies to Voltaire

    "I may not find your joke funny, but I will defend to the death you right to make it."

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 12:54pm

    The gentleman's statement was utterly undignified and improper to say the least. He should be drawn and quartered immediately.

     

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    JoeNYC, May 12th, 2010 @ 1:30pm

    Think about this in practical terms

    "As we said at the time, it was a really dumb statement, and I have no problem with police checking it out."

    Is this the police dept. with unlimited resources you're referring to? As a society, we expect our law enforcement to check out all bombing threats. If they didn't and it turned out to be real, what then?

    So, what happens if enough people partake in this form of 'humor'?

     

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      Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 1:47pm

      Re: Think about this in practical terms

      So, what happens if enough people partake in this form of 'humor'?

      Then the terrorists have won.

       

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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 1:36pm

    the man is an idiot, comments like that are not welcome. there is no simple way to separate the moronic from the motivated online. the comments are threatening, and i am glad that law enforcement saw fit to take it seriously. maybe other jokers will think twice before making a joke about other peoples safety and security.

     

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    Atkray (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 2:00pm

    On the bright side, I'm thinking that a bomb threat conviction probably makes it difficult to get on-board a commercial aircraft.

     

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    Fentex, May 12th, 2010 @ 2:11pm


    once they realized it was just a dumb joke, it seems reasonable to leave the guy alone.


    I disagree. The police time spent costs both actual money and opportunity to work on other cases.

    That's a harm to taxpayers and victims who's complaints are unattended.

    People should be punished for such harm, and it doesn't hurt that the need to be civil in communications is coincidentally reinforced.

    Only if police are given the discretion to ignore the complaint at the beginning, and supported by the public in such discrimination of deploying resources, could it be reasonably argued damage to the taxpayer and citizen is avoided and prosecution of the offender unneccesary.

    As the police aren't supported in being so descriminating that argument doesn't work.

     

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      lux (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 3:00pm

      Re:

      Do We Really Want To Criminalize Bad Jokes?

      If it's made in the context of bombing an airport, yes. And it was, so they did. Good.

       

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        Mike Masnick (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 3:39pm

        Re: Re:

        If it's made in the context of bombing an airport, yes. And it was, so they did. Good.


        Wow. Free speech means nothing to you, huh? Besides, as stated (you did read the post, right?) there are already laws for false bomb threats. They didn't use it.

        Don't you see that as a problem?

        Or are you honestly suggesting that any joke about blowing something up deserves criminal sanctions and potentially jailtime?

         

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          Technopolitical (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 8:19pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          "Or are you honestly suggesting that any joke about blowing something up deserves criminal sanctions and potentially jailtime?"

          Yes !!

          Because , as stated above : "The police time spent costs both actual money and opportunity to work on other cases.

          That's a harm to taxpayers and victims who's complaints are unattended.

          People should be punished for such harm, and it doesn't hurt that the need to be civil in [public] communications is coincidentally reinforced."

          Right On !!

           

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      Mike Masnick (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 3:38pm

      Re:

      I disagree. The police time spent costs both actual money and opportunity to work on other cases.

      That's a harm to taxpayers and victims who's complaints are unattended.


      Wait, seriously? You are suggesting that any time a police investigation ends up going nowhere, it's okay to charge those who caused the investigation with *criminal* sanctions?

      Do you really not see how problematic that is?

       

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        Technopolitical (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 8:23pm

        Re: ReAny idiot knows , when at the Airport , do not joke about guns and bombs.

        "Wait, seriously? You are suggesting that any time a police investigation ends up going nowhere, it's okay to charge those who caused the investigation with *criminal* sanctions?"

        Any idiot knows , when at the Airport , do not joke about guns and bombs.

        There are even signs in airports clearly stating, "Do not joke about guns or bombs"

        It is illegal in an airport to joke about guns and bombs.

        The old , yelling fire in a movie theater thing ,, which the courts have always been clear on.

         

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        Fentex, Oct 22nd, 2010 @ 9:34pm

        Re: Re:

        You are suggesting that any time a police investigation ends up going nowhere, it's okay to charge those who caused the investigation with *criminal* sanctions?

        No, an investigated complaint may have all sorts of outcomes for all sorts of reasons.

        When the reason for the police investigation is an individual making a threat the police are compelled to investigate (why I mentioned if the police weren't compelled to investigate it would be a different matter) then that individual has no reason to complain for being held accountable for their action.

        If their action is defensible, then they can defend it against prosecution. But wasting police time and resources by making threats against people requiring investigation is something to be held to account for.

        Free speach is an imperative, so is begin held acocuntable, otherwise the rule of law doesn't work.

         

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    lux (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 3:58pm

    Or are you honestly suggesting that any joke about blowing something up deserves criminal sanctions and potentially jailtime?

    Not at all, but you do understand the ambiguity of the medium that is Internet communication, don't you? Ten people side-by-side reading that Twitter message will have ten different interpretations of what his intent was. Who's to be exactly certain?

    Also, this wasn't a joke about the chicken crossing the road, this was a comment about blowing up an airport, and lest you conveniently forget that America is still at war. Airports and airplanes (as I'm sure you are well aware) are still a touchy subject for most.

    Moreover, do you think this statement would go over well while INSIDE the airport he referneced? How about just a few feet from outside the terminal? I'd assume not, so why should it be any different over the Internet, where he clearly named an explicit airport that he clearly has access to. It's not like he mentioned the International Airport in New Delhi; there was reason to believe the threat was real, hence the police investigation.

    Also, what's the difference if they charged him with another law as oppose to the bomb threat law. This is just splitting hairs, as I assume the bomb threat law carries a higher punishment, and as you said they understood (at some point) this was a "joke" and charged him with the lesser of the two crimes.

     

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      Andrew (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 8:05pm

      Re:

      Who's to be exactly certain?

      This can be a difficult call to make, and (as Mike said) it was probably reasonable for the police to investigate. But they should have quickly concluded that there was no real threat and let him off with a slap on the wrist. The airport authorities stated that no inconvenience was caused by the message (though that was not true for the subsequent police investigation).

      Also, what's the difference if they charged him with another law as oppose to the bomb threat law.

      He appears to have charged under the Communications Act 2003 because, unlike the Criminal Law Act 1977 (the bomb threat law), there was no need to "show beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant intended to induce in another person a false belief that a bomb or other thing liable to explode or ignite is present."

      Under the Communications Act, it isn't necessary for the message reasonably to be thought of as a real threat by the authorities, or even for the authorities to receive (or be aware of) the message at all. It is enough that he sent it and that someone believes the message is menacing.

      This potentially criminalises a whole swathe of personal communication. If I make a poor joke about a bomb threat with friends socially, nothing will happen. But if I post the same joke on someone's Facebook wall, it could potentially be indexed by Google and turn up later when the police are trawling the internet. In both cases the intended audience is the same (an audience I know won't take the joke seriously), but only one of them could be taken grossly out of context and lead to a criminal conviction.

      Paul Chambers wasn't standing up in the airport, making bomb threats at the top of his voice. He wasn't trying to do the online equivalent of this either. This was a message he only intended his friends to read. Yes it was a silly thing to say, but perhaps you should take a look at the messages you send to friends. Strip away the context and knowledge of your common history and see how many of those could potentially lead to you being charged under this law. (Material that is "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character" - not to you or the recipient, but to a "reasonable person".)

       

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      Mike Masnick (profile), May 12th, 2010 @ 10:44pm

      Re:

      Not at all, but you do understand the ambiguity of the medium that is Internet communication, don't you? Ten people side-by-side reading that Twitter message will have ten different interpretations of what his intent was. Who's to be exactly certain?

      Wow. So now you're suggesting that someone should be charged with a crime based on the way a random person *might* interpret their statements, not what they said or what their intent was.

      No offense, lux, but you scare me.

      Also, this wasn't a joke about the chicken crossing the road, this was a comment about blowing up an airport, and lest you conveniently forget that America is still at war. Airports and airplanes (as I'm sure you are well aware) are still a touchy subject for most.

      A few points. First, this is the UK, the US. Second, the US is not, technically, at war. Only Congress can declare war, and they have not. Third, I said he should be investigated -- and he was -- but still charging him after the investigation makes no sense whatsoever.

      Moreover, do you think this statement would go over well while INSIDE the airport he referneced?

      I imagine they would not enjoy it at all. But that's no reason to throw the guy in jail and give him a criminal record.

      It's not like he mentioned the International Airport in New Delhi; there was reason to believe the threat was real, hence the police investigation.

      Again, as I said, it makes sense for the police to investigate. It does not make sense to charge him with a crime. I am greatly confused by your inability to recognize that those two things are different.

      Also, what's the difference if they charged him with another law as oppose to the bomb threat law.

      Because abuse of the law and using different laws to get around the fact that they clearly would not win on the law designed for *EXACTLY* this purpose is a clear abuse of power and dangerous for the rule of law. It allows for arbitrary and petty decisions, and if you respect the rule of law then you should be against this.

       

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        Technopolitical (profile), May 13th, 2010 @ 4:55am

        Re: Re:

        "A few points. First, this is the UK, the US. Second, the US is **not,technically, at war.** Only Congress can declare war, and they have not."

        They are trying to kill us. We are trying to kill them.
        We are "not technically at war" ?!?!?! We are at war ! Bombs are being dropped. Villages are being leveled. (And almost Times Square too ! )

        People are dying. That is WAR !!

        Mike ,, get real here.

         

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    Anonymous Coward, May 12th, 2010 @ 8:46pm

    he deserved it, any moron today making threats or statements like that should be charged with the higher offense

    "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!!"

    that's an ultimatum do something to appease me or I will do bad things to you, it isn't a joke in any way shape or form

     

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    bake n, May 13th, 2010 @ 1:00am

    Oh well, if the Brits can gun down an innocent, supposed-to-be-terrorist Brazilian, why not fine a man for making a bad joke?

     

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    Idobek (profile), May 13th, 2010 @ 2:34am

    Hopefully this case will ensure that Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 (or, even better, the entire act) is added to the coming Great Repeal Bill.

    If Hannan and Carswell have their way they we can all have a say: http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Great_Repeal_Bill

     

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    Ketch, May 13th, 2010 @ 2:36am

    He must be charged

    The fascinating fact is that probably not one person responding to the article has worked for an airline. While airlines and airports should be treated no differently, its a shame that they must. With all of the hijackings and attempted hijackings, aviation related topics must be treated with kit gloves.

    If someone calls into the airport and threatens to blow it up, that is a bomb threat and we clear the airport. If someone tweets it to a huge audience that they will blow up an airport, it is no longer a joke and MUST be treated the same way. I would not have said this before 9/11 or the Pan Am flight, but now a days, these things happen so frequently that they must be treated differently.

    At the ticket counter, when a passenger "jokes" that he has a bomb, we must call the police and he no longer travels. While 99.9 percent are truly joking, there will be the clever point.one percent who will actually have something. And with your luck your husband or wife will be on that flight. And I guarantee, guarantee, guarantee, that if your spouse died on a flight, and there was a tweet ignored that could have saved your spouses or child's life, you will have someone's head on a platter for not responding.

    Its a shame that it has come down to this, but it has, and if you allow one person to do this to a large audience, it will only tempt another person to do a little more.

     

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      Technopolitical (profile), May 13th, 2010 @ 3:53am

      Re: He must be charged

      Well said !!

       

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      Anonymous Coward, May 13th, 2010 @ 9:23am

      Re: He must be charged

      Yes, but he WASN'T charged with a bomb-threat, like he should of been according to what you've just described. That's the whole point of the article. He was charged with "sending a bad message" - which is such a stupid law.

       

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    Ketch, May 13th, 2010 @ 2:49am

    One more thought!

    Let's say that a week after his tweet, he actually did blow up the airport. (stay with me- there have been many airport bombings; I was inside of one once myself when a bomb went off).

    So, if he had actually bombed the airport a few days later, does this now make his tweet a threat. Yes! If he blew up the airport, and tweeted that he was going to do it, then that tweet would actually have been considered a threat.

    So now we are down to semantics. Punish him under this law or that law, a joke or not. Either way, it could be a threat, but most likely not. If the airport was bombed today by him, this entire conversation would come to an end about the way he was charged, and we would all suddenly consider it a threat. Let the judicial system do its thing as long as were are in such a high threat aviation environment.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 13th, 2010 @ 6:45am

    Mike Masnick(profile)
    Not at all, but you do understand the ambiguity of the medium that is Internet communication, don't you? Ten people side-by-side reading that Twitter message will have ten different interpretations of what his intent was. Who's to be exactly certain?

    Wow. So now you're suggesting that someone should be charged with a crime based on the way a random person *might* interpret their statements, not what they said or what their intent was."


    Unfortunately Mike that's how the law works here in the UK. I have been arrested myself for behaviour that COULD have caused harassment, alarm or distress. No-one actually WAS harassed, alarmed or distressed but if the police and courts judge that your behaviour COULD be then you are screwed. Luckily in my case the court realised what a waste of taxpayers money it was.

    In the same town a student was walking home at 3am dressed as Rambo with a plastic knife and was arrested and charged under the same law. The theory being that if someone unfamiliar with the Rambo films had actually mistook him for a pyscho with a knife they would have been distressed, even though nobody actually did.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, May 18th, 2010 @ 12:27am

    Maybe the lesser charge was part of a plea bargin - they didn't want him to get the maximum, but didn't want him to walk away scot-free.

     

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      Mike Masnick (profile), May 18th, 2010 @ 12:33am

      Re:

      Maybe the lesser charge was part of a plea bargin - they didn't want him to get the maximum, but didn't want him to walk away scot-free.

      Plea bargains are not legal in the UK...

       

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    Angela, May 18th, 2010 @ 4:13am

    I need to contact Mike Masnick. How can I do it. I can't find an email.
    Thanks

     

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    darryl, Nov 12th, 2010 @ 3:12pm

    If its a joke, what is the punchline ??

    "If it's made in the context of bombing an airport, yes. And it was, so they did. Good."


    Wow. Free speech means nothing to you, huh? Besides, as stated (you did read the post, right?) there are already laws for false bomb threats. They didn't use it.



    NO MIKE !!! this is NOT a free speech case, and you, im sorry to say are a moron for trying to drag free speech into this.
    Free speech does not give you the right to shout "FIRE" in at the movies.
    Or to yell abuse, OR THE MAKE THREATS.

    ________________

    Bad Joke ---- Not a threat !!!!!

    OMFG Mike,

    You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

    That is a threat Mike,,

    IF you don't do this, I WILL DO THIS, and what I will do is BLOW THE AIRPORT SKY HIGH.

    You are only guessing it is a joke, but how do you know ??

    You DO KNOW that the ONLY PERSON or group that can determine if that is a threat of not, is THOSE that the threat was directed at.

    That would be the airport, and if you do not know that airports do NOT consider the threat (in WRITING) that he intends to otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

    What aspect of that do you Mike, consider as a JOKE ??

    So in your world Mike, you would be able to make any kinds of threats you like to any group, as long as you frame it "as a joke".

    He is damn luck they do not have laws against stupidy in the US, but this guy did not make a joke, making threats, even if you do not intent to carry them out, is STILL and act or terror.

    (ie you SCARE people), and if he, or you are so stupid to not see that, "a joke" is NO JOKE when it involved scaring people.

    And if one person at that airport who read that message thought more about being blow up, then he should go to prison for a terrorist act..

    Not pat on the back and told by Mike that it is OK to threaten life, as long as you frame it in a joke.. !!!

    There is only one joke here... Mike !!!

     

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