The Internet has revolutionised all aspects of life, air-travel included. You can now book your flight, choose your seats and check-in online before you’ve even left your house, and now you can even set off terrorist-alert sirens in airport security armed with just your Twitter account.
At least that turned out to be the case for Paul Chambers. The trainee accountant, 27, was planning to fly to Belfast from Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, only to discover that it was closed at the time following the heavy snowfall in January. To vent his frustration in a concise and supposedly harmless manner, Chambers took to Twitter (@pauljchambers), saying:
“C**p! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s**t together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”
A week later, Chambers’ jested deadline, he was apprehended by anti-terrorist officers, under Section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act which covers sending of indecent, obscene or menacing messages. At trial, the presiding judge, Jonathan Bennett, acknowledged the unusual nature of the case, but described the joke as being of a “menacing nature in the context of the times we live in”, convicting and fining Chambers £1,000.
Chambers has sought to appeal, and his trial was held at Doncaster crown court last week. Barrister Stephen Ferguson has urged Judge Jacqueline Davies to overlook the prosecution case as the offending remark could not be proven as menacing. Robin Hood Airport security officials have dismissed the tweet as a “non-credible threat” and “operationally nothing”. The court has been adjourned until November.
If the court decides to make an example of Chambers’, it could send out a cautionary tale about the potential harm of inconsiderate use of social networks and public platforms. However, if the conviction were upheld, it brands a man for life with a criminal record for an insignificant, facetious comment for which Chambers has already lost his job, and creates a public trepidation around social networks for fear of misspeaking. Although, if the conviction were to be overturned, it could potentially precipitate more off-hand comments like this and cause a flurry of false alarms and disruption to air travel. Obviously, Chambers’ tweet was somewhat foolhardy, but nobody would’ve expected such a disproportionate fallout from it and practically any Twitter feed you can name will have some comment of a similar nature.
At least they will now. With Chambers’ appeal getting a full complement of media coverage, the Twitosphere is alight with messages of support. A campaign has started with the hashtag #twitterjoketrial to bombard (pardon the pun) the micro-blogging service with jokes in the same hyperbolic nature to Chambers’. Twitter user @mrderekpayne tweeted, ”After a long day in court Paul Chambers says he ‘could murder a pint’. & is promptly rearrested”, and @barsteward said, “Apparently, West Yorkshire Police want to question the Kaiser Chiefs about their inside knowledge & prediction of a riot.” Support also came from famous Twitterati, such as the notorious Stephen Fry and Graham Lineham, writer of Father Ted and The IT Crowd.
This isn’t the first time an off-hand Twitter remark has landed someone in hot water. Cardiff councillor John Dixon, whilst walking through the streets of London, tweeted, “I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off.” Dixon was subsequently put through a disciplinary hearing as a result, with members of the ‘Church of Scientology’ claiming that the remark infringed on their religious freedom, despite Scientology not being a recognised religion in Britain. Professional journalists who use social networks (Twitter especially) are often asked by their employer to include on their profile that their opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the company they work for. It’s understandable that those either in positions of authority, like councillors, or journalists should be wary of what they say in public, even on a platform like Twitter, as they are recognised as authoritative and potentially influential sources of information. But for members of the public, like Chambers, this is not the case. Why then has this obscure tweeter been singled out as menacing when, amidst the more than 50 million tweets per day, equally offhand and possibly more sinister messages must go unnoticed?
Once the dust has settled on this case, people will probably forget and go back to thoughtlessly tweeting threats at whoever or whatever sparks their disdain that day. But it’s still worrying to think that you could have, like Chambers, your life upturned in less than 140 characters.