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By Marta Cooper / 19 December 2012
Guidelines issued by the Crown Prosecution Service today could give greater weight to free speech online by establishing a high threshold for prosecutions for offensive or abusive comments made on social networking sites.
Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has expressed concern over “the potential for a chilling effect on free speech” for prosecuting people who send communications that are “grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing.”
Starmer said that a prosecution was unlikely to be necessary, proportionate or in the public interest if the communication were “swiftly removed, blocked, not intended for a wide audience or not obviously beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in a diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression.”
Prosecutors will now be required to differentiate between such messages and communications that amount to credible threats of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment or those which breach court orders.
The age and maturity of a suspect will also need to be taken into consideration, particularly if they are under 18. The guidelines state that prosecutions of children would rarely be in the public interest, as children may not appreciate the potential harm of their communications.
“We welcome these guidelines and hope that they will be used to end the excessive prosecutions that we have seen in recent years,” said Index CEO, Kirsty Hughes. “In a plural society that respects free expression, there is no right not to be offended, and these guidelines acknowledge that.”
The UK has seen a recent rise in social media prosecutions. In October, Lancashire man Matthew Woods was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for making “despicable” jokes about missing five-year-old April Jones on Facebook, having pleaded guilty to “sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive” (section 127 (1)a of the Communications Act 2003). Also in October, Azhar Ahmed, who posted on Facebook that British soldiers should “die and go to hell”, was given a community order and a fine.
Paul Chambers, the man at the centre of the Twitter Joke Trial who was convicted in 2010 of sending a “menacing communication” after jokingly tweeting that he would blow an airport “sky high”, told Index: “I’m far more heartened than I expected to be. All the noises coming out of the early discussions suggested that lessons had not been learned, but it appears the DPP has finally taken a step in the right direction.”
I’d like to know, however, are how this is to be applied to arrests, given that this is more geared towards prosecutions. Users shouldn’t face arrest for the same reasons they shouldn’t face prosecutions in these situations. Secondly, given that the guidelines make mention of users who immediately take down the posts and show genuine remorse, where does this leave Azhar Ahmed, who did exactly that yet still finds himself with a criminal conviction. There should be moves to rescind this immediately.
The guidelines are open to public consultation, which is available on the CPS website and closes on 13 March 2013.
The next issue of Index on Censorship magazine What’s the Taboo?: Why breaking down social barriers matters, explores worldwide taboos in all their guises, and why they matter. With articles from Shazia Mirza and David Baddiel, Alastair Campbell and a special section of cartoonists from around the world.