Pennsylvania high school student Torre Scrimalli could face prison after sending a joke tweet
A US high-school student could face a criminal conviction and up to 14 years in prison after posting a joke on Twitter.
In a case reminiscent of the UK’s now-infamous “Twitter Joke Trial”, Scrimalli, 18, of Scranton, Pennsylvania has been arrested for “terroristic threats” after joking ahead of a local schools basketball game on 4 February:
“If there is a Facebook or twitter fight tonight over the HC MV game I will just blow up the schools and students involved. #goonsquad.”
The game was stopped in the first quarter and the venue evacuated.
According to local news station WNEP-TV, Scrimalli apologised, saying: “I had no intentions on scaring anyone or bringing violence into this. It was supposed to be a harmless tweet. I realised what it was after I posted it and I tried to get it off as soon as I could but I guess it was just too late.”
But authorities are pressing ahead with charges. Local Assistant District Attorney Gene Riccardo is quote as saying “Two municipalities, two school districts have been impacted by that decision so that’s why we’re going forward with these charges.”
Scrimalli was been released on $20,000 bail after h turned himself over to police on Tuesday night. Classmates and friends on Twitter have rallied around the hashtag #PrayForTorre.
The case comes as the United States debates weapon laws in the wake of December’s Sandy Hook school massacre, when 20 children and six adults were killed by a lone gunman.
Christopher Hitchens believed that the battle for free speech is “an all out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind”. Today at the Royal Courts of Justice, a significant blow was struck for the forces of irony, humour and free speech against the dead, literal, bureaucratic mind.
Paul Chambers’ ordeal, which ended today when the Lord Chief Justice agreed that Chambers supposed “threat” to blow up an airport “did not constitute or include a message of menacing character”, is a grim reminder that what drives censorship can often be nothing more than an over-developed bureaucratic machine to which we feel obliged to adhere. At no point in this process, which has lasted over two years, did anyone genuinely believe that Chambers meant it when he tweeted “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!” Not the off-duty airport security worker who spotted the original tweet, nor his manager, nor the police, nor the Crown Prosecution Service – who shamefully decided to pursue the case anyway, pour encourager les autres – nor the presiding judges at the initial case and subsequent appeal. But there was a law, and a system, and it had to be followed, no matter that a young man would lose his job and be branded forever a menace as a result. Justice blind to reason.
Referencing Orwell in any article on free speech is dubious territory, but it really does pay to look at Nineteen Eighty-Four in this instance. The Party functions by creating a bureaucracy so enormous and all encompassing that it is actually impossible to escape. It thrives by narrowing language away to nothing – with the aim of not just obliterating language, but actually obliterating thought. There are no jokes — good or bad — on Airstrip One.
We do not, despite what our more dedicated conspiracists believe, live on Orwell’s Airstrip One. But we should nonetheless be wary of a system that, until today, placed process over principle. The Lord Chief Justice has today elevated the principle of free speech, humour and irony above process, small-mindedness and literalism.
Index on Censorship welcomes today’s decision in the high court to overturn the conviction of Paul Chambers in what has become known as the Twitter Joke Trial.
“Today’s judgment is an advance in the justice system’s handling of free speech on the web,” said Kirsty Hughes, Chief Executive of Index on Censorship. “As more and more of us use social media, it is important that the law understands how people communicate online. This ruling is a step in the right direction.”
Chambers was convicted in 2010 for sending a “menacing communication” after joking on Twitter that he would blow Doncaster’s Robin Hood Airport “sky high” if it closed due to weather conditions. He had been due to fly from the airport to Belfast to meet his now-fiancée Sarah Tonner.
Paul Chambers, the man at the centre of the Twitter Joke Trial who was found guilty in 2010 of sending a “menacing” tweet, has won his appeal against his conviction. At the Royal Courts of Justice this morning the appeal was allowed “on the basis that this tweet did not constitute or include a message of a menacing character.” Speaking to Index on Censorship, Chambers said he felt relieved and vindicated by the decision, adding that the case “should never have got this far”. Chambers’s solicitor David Allen Green said: “This shameful prosecution should never have been brought.”
Comic Al Murray, who has been a vocal supporter of Chambers, was part of a large supportive crowd at the handing down of the judgment. Conservative MP Louise Mensch and science writer and free speech campaigner Simon Singh were also in attendance.
Murray told Index he though the judgment was “a victory for common sense and proportion”.
“If terrorism is such a threat, then surely it demands being dealt with coolly, rather than clamping down on mere mentions of it in a joke,” said Murray. “Paul’s tweet was not a credible threat, and the courts’ reaction up until now has made them look incredible.”