Paul Chambers responds to DPP announcement on social media prosecutions

Two years and nine months: that’s the period of time from my arrest for a tweet — the first of its kind at the time in the UK — to yesterday’s statement by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in relation to a homophobic tweet sent to Tom Daley earlier this year. Having taken the decision not to prosecute Daniel Thomas, Keir Starmer QC has decided this is the time to apply common sense to social media, and to issue guidelines for prosecutors, hopefully to avoid frivolous and nonsensical prosecutions in the future. That’s great. Really great. Its what we all fought for, and it is only right.But, while not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I want to know why it took so long and so many ill-advised, boot-on-the-throat prosecutions to get the DPP to finally state that “if the fundamental right to free speech is to be respected, the threshold for criminal prosecution has to be a high one, and a prosecution has to be required in the public interest”?

Why wasn’t this the default view, if we live in as decent a society as we like to think? Why were so many people — myself included — dragged through the mud before the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) could apply some common sense? It seems only an effective backside-kicking from the Lord Chief Justice can get perspectives in the right place.

While we should rightfully celebrate this for the victory that it is, we should not think that all of the sudden the authorities are going to think the way we hope they will. The CPS were made to look silly repeatedly, and this to me looks like nothing more than them wanting to avoid future occurrences. Call me a cynic, but lines in the CPS’ blog saying things like “social media is a new and emerging phenomenon” are laughable. Social media has been a prominent tool for some time, and this excuse is an attempt to whitewash a fundamental inability to understand it.

Let’s focus on the positives though. This really is fantastic news, as social media users can feel more confident that they’re not going to be criminalised when they absolutely should not be. Despite protestations to the contrary, I lost count of how many people unnecessarily self-censored their writing, given what was happening. I’m sure it will take some time for that over-cautious feeling to disappear — but at least we’re getting there.

People can once again use this tool, responsibly, for the good it can do, as they did 99.99 per cent of the time before the law felt it had to get involved. I’ve seen first-hand what social media can do, and during the Arab Spring we lauded Twitter as a platform for freedom. Various cases since then have seemingly changed how it has been perceived, and gave its detractors a stick with which to beat it, the result has changed the whole atmosphere. With this announcement — in Britain at least — we can hopefully focus once more on what made it great, and not on depressing and distressing trivialities. And that can only be good news.

Paul Chambers was acquitted of sending a “menacing” tweet in July of this year, after what became known as the “Twitter Joke Trial”. He now campaigns for free speech. Paul tweets at @pauljchambers

Also read:

Graham Linehan: Twitter Joke Trial: They just don’t “get it”

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  1. Posted 21Sep12 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    I am calling upon the Director of Public Prosecutions to request an absolute discharge at the sentencing for Azhar Ahmed on the 9th of October and to explain to the judge that the CPS feels a conviction would no longer be in the public interest.

  2. Posted 21Sep12 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    This isn’t a victory yet. Keir Starmer has said there will be a consultation but until we see the consultation document and terms of reference, all we have is hot air from a discredited DPP.

    Starmer’s statement, including as it does references to “service providers” suggests that he will look to cop out of as much as he and the CPS can so that he and the CPS can continue on its merry way. Only the consultation document can show whether this will be true or not.

    The bottom line is that the CPS and what looks like most of the judiciary are either incompetent, half-witted or both when trying to deal with issues relating to social networking.

    Twitter is a great tool for highlighting issues, successes and failures. Bad news always travels faster than good news so failures, cock-ups and incompetence will always get tweeted and retweeted more.

    The law and judiciary need to evolve and drag themselves into the 21st century. At the moment they are a laughing stock.

    When Starmer’s consultation document is issued it deserves a stern examination and a full, detailed response so that he can see just how far he and other judges have failed in dealing with such cases as yours, Olly C’s and Azhar Ahmed’s.

  3. Posted 21Sep12 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Hi Jamie
    I agree that there hasn’t been an actual victory yet. It’s vitally important that there’s a real effort put in on the public consultation to show how strongly people feel about these cases

  4. Posted 21Sep12 at 11:09 am | Permalink
    Paul Chambers

    Totally agree that it is not a victory as yet while cases like Azhar Ahmed are still ongoing. What I meant was that to get even an admission of sorts from the DPP that they’ve been heavy-handed in the past is at least something. Though it does annoy me that, through that statement, he’s tried to paint himself as some kind of champion. To date, he’s been arrogant and incompetent and continues to be.

  5. Posted 21Sep12 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    I supported you as I think that the tweet in question did not pose a threat to the airport.
    What we are witnessing is the demise of free speech. You will find it far easier to establish a police state than to dismantle one.

  6. Posted 21Sep12 at 9:16 pm | Permalink
    Dinah Greek

    I agree on many points but we need to see what the consultation brings out and what guidelines are proposed.
    Yes there is the spectre that haunts us all that ‘free speech’ is under threat. I apparently can’t use the word twat anymore – it’s vulgar now but I didn’t know the joking aside had been made offensive until I used it at work..
    So what is free speech exactly? What this generation makes it and who exactly are you and who tells me what I can or cannot say? And what are the boundaries… what rights do we have balanced against someone else’s rights – I personally feel the muslim reaction to a daft film is so over the top.. but I am not religious..I dont feel their anger.
    Paul’s case is simple – he was wrongly convicted..No one in their right mind would consider his comments a threat – any more than my they would have in my youth when I heard my now 95 year old aunt’s ocassional outbursts to her husband when they disagreed – “CHRIST Higgy I could KILL you sometimes”
    In my opinion there is currently an hysterical backlash against opposite opinions and off the cuff comments. Twitter is sometimes a forum for vile lynch mobs – no democracy at all there – disagree with me you must be a bigot.
    All we can do is monitor the situation. Thomas made an ill judged and stupid offensive remark – that does not make him a troll , Paul made a remark most of us can understand but it was also ill judged in current times – so either we get a bit of a grip or we see more of this stupidity from the courts ,, what is offensive to you may not be to someone else. So I guess the CPS has to judge – although based on current political climate I fear for the best

  7. Posted 23Sep12 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Freedom of speech must only be limited and punished in drastic circumstances. For example, I agree with the countries that have blocked the showing of the anti-Islamic video in order to prevent riots and more innocent deaths but I believe this video censorship should only be temporary until these countries decided how they are going to handle this situation. Social media is a platform for the freedom of expression that continues to expand. The DPP needs to realize that freedom of speech must get the highest scrutiny when deciding to limit or punish because such freedom promotes and facilitates a democracy. Also, it would be very difficult to punish every single person for their comments or acts on social media and prosecuting these cases would clog up the court system and waste financial resources.

  8. Posted 17Dec12 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

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  1. [...] the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has over-prosecuted free speech cases in the past citing the Paul Chambers Twitter joke trial case: “Aside from the free speech issue, what a waste of [...]