Paul Chambers is off the hook after winning a U.K. High Court appeal against a 2010 conviction for — get this — tweeting. To be fair to the establishment, the tweet was in pretty bad taste. After showing up at the Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire on his way to a romantic liaison, the 27-year-old British man was frustrated to see that it was closed due to snow. So naturally, he tweeted a bomb threat: “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!!” He was kidding.
British authorities didn’t find Chambers’ joke very funny. A week later an airport employee spotted the tweet and reported it to the police. Four officers then arrested Chambers at his office for violating section 127(1) of the Communications Act 2003, which prohibits sending “by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.” After a widely publicized trial that became known simply as #twitterjoketrial, a judge found Chambers guilty, fined him £385 and saddled him with another £600 in court costs.
Chambers appealed and the case bubbled up through the court system, eventually landing in the High Court who overturned the earlier decision. In his ruling, the presiding Lord Judge said, “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.”
There are a couple of things going on here. The first and most obvious one is that Chambers is bad at Twitter. Then again, we’ve all been guilty of sending a rogue tweet, a misunderstood message that maybe bothered or even offended our friends and followers. Typically, though, these tweets don’t include bomb threats. The second and more important thing happening is the free speech debate that Chambers’ gaffe ignited. “When parliament returns we will be asking searching questions about why freedom of speech was trashed,” said Member of Parliament and avid tweeter Louise Mensch after the decision. “There was nothing menacing about this message. It was completely obvious.” John Cooper who represented Chambers said, simply, “Now people can have a joke even if it’s a bad joke.”
It might be hard for we Americans to imagine, but the threat of being muzzled on social media platforms is a real threat in the U.K. Or at least it has been lately. When London erupted in riots last year, authorities feared that the vandals were organizing themselves on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, so British Prime Minister David Cameron suggested that they just shut them down. “Free flow of information can be used for good,” Cameron said at the time. “But it can also be used for ill. And when people are using social media for violence, we need to stop them.” After the world screamed out in protest, flying the flag of free speech and civil liberty, Cameron walked back on his remarks, and with Chambers’ acquittal, it looks like the U.K. is finally coming around.
Let’s get down to brass tacks, though. Tweeting out terrorist threats is a horrible idea. Even though Lord Judge, who said that Twitter “represents no more and no less than conversation without speech” cut Cambers some slack, we’ve seen tweets stir up fear before, like last September when some hackers broke into the NBC News account and told hundreds of thousands of people that terrorists had attacked Ground Zero. Then again, Chambers wasn’t being malicious with his tweet, just dumb. And it’s tough to justify prosecuting someone just for being stupid. Well, most of the time, anyway.