Prosecutors clarify offensive online posts law

 

Keir Starmer: "We've got to have a way of balancing the right of the individual not to be subjected to threats and harassment"

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New guidelines could see fewer people being charged in England and Wales for offensive messages on social networks.

The Director of Public Prosecutions said people should face a trial only if their comments on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere go beyond being offensive.

He said the guidance combats threats and internet trolls without having a "chilling effect" on free speech.

The guidance means some people could avoid trial if they are sorry for criminal comments posted while drunk.

The guidance comes after a string of controversial cases, including the prosecution of a man who tweeted a joke threatening to blow up an airport.

Case law

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer said the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had now dealt with more than 50 cases relating to potentially criminal comments posted online - but there was so far very little case law set by senior judges to guide which trials should go ahead.

Start Quote

These interim guidelines are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law”

End Quote Keir Starmer Director of Public Prosecutions

He said the interim guidelines, which come into force immediately, clarified which kinds of cases should be prosecuted and which would go ahead only after a rigorous assessment whether it was in the public interest to prosecute.

"The scale of the problem that we are trying to confront should not be underestimated. There are millions of messages sent by social media every day and if only a small percentage of those millions are deemed to be offensive then there is the potential for very many cases coming before our courts," Mr Starmer told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The guidance says that if someone posts a message online that clearly amounts to a credible threat of violence, specifically targets an individual or individuals, or breaches a court order designed to protect someone, then the person behind the message should face prosecution.

People who receive malicious messages and pass them on, such as by retweeting, could also fall foul of the law.

However, online posts that are merely "grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false" would face a much tougher test before the individual could be charged under laws designed to prevent malicious communications.

Mr Starmer said that many suspects in this last category would be unlikely to be prosecuted because it would not be in the public interest to take them to court.

This could include posts made by drunk people who, on sobering up, take swift action to delete the communication because they are genuinely sorry for the offence or harm they caused.

Individuals who post messages as part of a separate crime, such as a plan to import drugs, would face prosecution for that offence, as is currently the case.

A CASE TO PROSECUTE:

  • Communications that are credible threats of violence
  • Harassment or stalking, such as aggressive internet trolling
  • Posts that breach court orders, such as those protecting the identity of a victim of a sexual offence

Mr Starmer said: "These interim guidelines are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law.

"The interim guidelines thus protect the individual from threats or targeted harassment while protecting the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it."

Javed Khan, head of Victim Support, welcomed the new rules. He said: "Victims tell us that sustained and vindictive targeting on social media can leave long lasting emotional and psychological scars, so we warmly welcome clarification on how prosecutors will deal with online threats or harassment. The distinction between communications which constitute a credible threat and those which may merely cause offence is sorely needed."

Earlier this year, senior judges overturned the conviction of Paul Chambers who tweeted in 2010 that he would blow up Doncaster Airport because he was frustrated that it had been closed by snow.

'Judgement wrong'

Mr Chambers, and his many high-profile supporters, always said the tweet was meant as a joke and should not have been taken seriously.

Quashing the conviction, the Lord Chief Justice said Mr Chambers should not have been convicted of sending a menacing communication because it did not amount to a serious threat that created fear or apprehension.

Asked if he now regretted the prosecution of Mr Chambers, the DPP said: "A judgement call had to be made about that case. The Divisional Court ruled that our judgement call was wrong and I accept that."

Although the interim guidance is now in force, its final form is subject to a consultation that runs until 13 March 2013.

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 522.

    515. You
    16 MINUTES AGO
    512. You
    7 MINUTES AGO
    Your comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.
    ---
    Nope still on duty then, startling to feel like i am being stalked, twitter style.
    --
    I must admit i thought this comment was more off topic than the off topic emails i have received for being off topic from the beeb. off topic team.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 521.

    517. By that logic, racial, sexual harassment should just be deemed as freedom of speech right?

    I'm not saying if you're interacting with the person as well, I'm saying if THEY are sending you the threats/abuse..

    I disagree with your opinion, but I'm not telling you to go put a knife through your throat. It certainly isn't riding my 'hobby-horse'.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 520.

    519.Paul
    He was leader of Germany (ie recognised as an official authority with the ability to give orders with legal force). His claim to be the leader is an admission of responsibility
    ---

    He had the thugs at teh very start of his rise to power - when all he had at his disposal was his words & Charisma.

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 519.

    "That is very true, however, how did he control that close group of thugs? What gave them the idea to do what they did - his ideas"

    He was leader of Germany (ie recognised as an official authority with the ability to give orders with legal force). His claim to be the leader is an admission of responsibility

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 518.

    510. I agree, there's no excuse for it.

    But it's not my info being 'sold' on, it's the fact that bullying, cyber or otherwise, in SOME cases, have severe circumstances. I'm not saying this should necessarily be dealt with by the police, but it still needs to be dealt with. The excuse of 'the internet' is pointless. You'll get ramifications in the real world.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 517.

    "I'm not suggesting banning opinions"

    Yes you are. You find some opinions unacceptable and you wish to use the law to ride your personal hobby-horse into everybody else's front room. Stop. If you find someones opinion unpalateable, talk to someone else.

    "I'm talking 'you should go kill yourself you worthless piece of"

    There is no way to define this rationally..

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 516.

    Anyway, I don't want to get bogged down in debate tonight. Last thought for the day - if speaking does not influence others, then why have there been conversations/debates on this HYS?
    Only if we speak when others can't hear - or speak not at all, can we be sure we influence no-one.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 515.

    512. You
    7 MINUTES AGO
    Your comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.
    ---
    Nope still on duty then, startling to feel like i am being stalked, twitter style.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 514.

    506. I'm not suggesting banning opinions, I'm saying cyber bullying, racial taunts, sexual harassment etc should be taken as seriously as it would be in the real world. Or is bullying just freedom of expression? People can still abuse you through anon sources. I'm not talking about things like 'oh you're such a idiot', I'm talking 'you should go kill yourself you worthless piece of ****' etc

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 513.

    511.Paul
    "Hitler coerced people into following his orders - he had a gang of thugs and threatened people directly with violence."

    That is very true, however, how did he control that close group of thugs? What gave them the idea to do what they did - his ideas.

  • Comment number 512.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 511.

    "Hitler never killed anyone personally during his time in power"

    Hitler coerced people into following his orders - he had a gang of thugs and threatened people directly with violence. If he had tried to run the third Reich as a bullying campaign on facebook, it wouldn't have worked

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 510.

    @501 'Berto91'
    ~~
    There is no excuse for bullying or spite. Unfortunately there are many using the internet to target the vulnerable as they would by cold-calling or knocking on doorsteps lying about a bad roof or tree.

    I would prefer our police focus on scammers and criminal gangs on the ground, on the 'phone and on the internet. Sadly, the latter are growing - as your info is sold on. Beware!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 509.

    when a few people are discussing what they'd do to a person or group in a malicious or violent manner, we just ignore it. eg women and girls seriously proposing that boys should be killed at birth or castration should be mandatory, this is beyond opinion, its not "feminism lol" its the kind of thing that doesnt have a place in civilised society ergo why acceptable online?

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 508.

    503. To an extent I can see you view, but you can dislike someone without throwing death threats at them or driving their self-worth into the ground. You use 'most adults' as your reasoning, what about the people, young or old, that suffer with depression, what about the people that get racially abused of all ages. Have you ever been bullied? Ever been to the edge where you self-harm?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 507.

    The message is clear, don't drink and tweet. (Hic).

    But being serious, I think that some people should grow a thicker skin and stop whining .
    I've had torrents of abuse thrown at me in my 14yrs on the internet and I care not a jot.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 506.

    "having some sort of common decency shouldn't be that hard"

    So, no need to legaly enforce it. If you find chat in a particular area of the internet a bit rough you could always talk to some one else or turn your computer off. Banning opinions because they are impolite is just dumb

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 505.

    I do not use FB (or T) because I have real friends, rather than some random people who clicked the friend button and with whom one has no real realtionship.
    If I find I need pretend friends then I will ask my GP to refer me to a shrink.
    Some years ago, there were millions of people on IRC, then the novelty wore off and there are thousands. Similar with Second Life. Same will happen with FB and T.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 504.

    503.Paul
    a lot of these things are just ignored, thats unacceptable, youre ratifying that behavior - what im saying is that people need to take responsibility when they post things online and online threats and statements should be taken as seriously as those irl. we have a responsibility to manage behaviour in our society, you dont just ignore a "kill all xxx" flag just because "internet lol"

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 503.

    " there are a lot of extreme posts directed to specific people "

    The problem is there is no objective way to decide what is extreme. You want the government to make an official list of extreme things and ban them. It is simpler and less dangerous if people like yourself ignore the opinions they find 'extreme' - like most adults

 

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