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Twitter Jokes: Free Speech On Trial 172

Posted by Soulskill
from the 140-characters-of-terror dept.
An anonymous reader writes "On 6 January 2010, Paul Chambers typed a flippant tweet that would turn his life upside-down for the next two and a half years. As the courts repeatedly showed a lack of common sense and an ignorance of technology, for a long time it looked as though the right to free speech in the UK was under very real threat. Now that it's over, we can step back and take a detailed look at how such an insane case even came to trial. This article delves deep into the the Twitter Joke Trial: how it happened, what it means, and the epic struggle to balance civility and civil liberties."
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Twitter Jokes: Free Speech On Trial

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  • by khasim (1285) <brandioch.conner@gmail.com> on Friday August 31, 2012 @12:35PM (#41191515)

    Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. Youâ(TM)ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise Iâ(TM)m blowing the airport sky high!!

    Just because it is a bit buried in TFA.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I don't see the issue. Then again, I don't even know how to pronounce a word like "Youâ(TM)ve". Is that like "ewe-eh-TMM-vvv" or "ewe-ah-TMM-vvv"?

      Also "Iâ(TM)m". Is that "eye-eh-TMM-mmm" or "eye-ah-TMM-mmm"?

    • by cpu6502 (1960974)

      >>>Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise Iâ(TM)m blowing the airport sky high!!

      I'm tempted to post that on my Twitter and Facebook just to see what happens. Maybe like the marine from two weeks ago, I'll find the FBI or DHS dragging me off and jailing me for several days w/o charges. (And then have a judge scold them for being stupid.)

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        Also want to add: "Don't Talk to Police" in response to this part of the article. Opening your mouth is a great way to say the wrong thing & give police enough evidence to charge you. You have the right to remain silent. So become a mute.

        The Ron Paul volunteer who was detained by the TSA handled it well (though not perfectly). Every time they asked where he got the $4000 in cash, he refused to answer. He didn't want the police to know the dollars were donations, since Missouri had decided to start

        • by TaoPhoenix (980487) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Saturday September 01, 2012 @03:27AM (#41198095) Journal

          Naw, it's all about the area you are in.

          While that's a great internet meme video, in a lot of areas, it's actually better just to be a "little guy". It's when you get all fancy "upholding your rights" that you'll get in trouble, because so help you if you mess up one line of your "script" the grumpy officer will then go ballistic on you.

          This is all made difficult because each town has about three "moods" depending on which set of officers is on shift, times the number of towns in an area. But I've done far better with "Yes Officer, my license is a week expired, but see, this is Route 28, I'm on my way to the DMV 20 miles up that way to go fix it. There's a new section on the form that asks for 'any license number you ever had in the last 10 years' that took me a week to figure out."

          That's usually all it takes to get a Warning. If you get all fancy like "I don't have to talk to you", they get pissed, then they unload on you.

      • by sjames (1099)

        If I had a twitter account, I'd be tempted to post that and then urge everyone else to do the same. It should be a new meme. Perhaps being the butt of a worldwide joke for a while will generate sufficient shame to convince those responsible to be a bit more careful with prosecuting nonsense in the future.

    • by WaffleMonster (969671) on Friday August 31, 2012 @01:10PM (#41191977)

      Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. YouÃ(TM)ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise IÃ(TM)m blowing the airport sky high!!

      I can't believe UK actually has an airport named "Robin Hood" ... Did it get its name by hiring TSA bag checkers who takith from the rich and givith to themselves?

      This kind of thing has been going on for a long time in many areas including the US you can't joke about anything anymore without someone somewhere thinking it is their duty to take you seriously context be damned. Well the text said you are going to kill yourself or someone else or blow something up so we HAVE to take you seriously because some nut job somewhere might have actually meant what they say.

      This OMG terror1st under every bed mentality soo many people appear to be afflicted with is nothing more than a reflection of their own paranoia and cowardice. Its discusting.

  • by i kan reed (749298) on Friday August 31, 2012 @12:35PM (#41191527) Homepage Journal

    Now, I'm not going to side with the government here(who would?), but the assertion that free speech was in jeopardy is real mistake. All sorts of things that are speech are not legal, and if you flagrantly slander someone, or make threats that imply risk of harm to others, or have a youtube channel that promotes terrorism, governments have shown more than enough willingness to let their beliefs about criminality override the core ideal of free speech.

    And that's what free-speech is, an ideal, a goal, not an impossible-to-violate core component of society. There are no perfect guardians of that ideal. Not the citizenry, not the elected official, not the courts, and not the police. All you can do is try to make judgements about how and when you can defend your ideals, and do so the best of your abilities.

    • by cpu6502 (1960974)

      No it isn't partial. The Supreme Court has ruled that decision again-and-again, including one case where a 70s-era black civil rights protestor said, "I will kill you." The justices ruled that all speech is protected, including speech uttered during the heat of protest. The black man was freed.

      And yes you can be sued for libel/slander, but that is a case between two citizens. Or a citizen and a business. The government is not involved. They have not made it illegal to slander/libel (though you might h

      • by radio4fan (304271) on Friday August 31, 2012 @01:23PM (#41192131)

        Please explain to a dumb non-american...

        If freedom of expression is absolute, and not partial, why is Bradley Manning in prison?

        And presumably the SCOTUS has ruled that threats against the president are a-ok?

        • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 31, 2012 @01:37PM (#41192315)

          Because it's just that, freedom of expression - it's about being free to express your own opinions and beliefs. In no way, shape or form does that give or imply a right to distribute and release classified or sensitive information that doesn't belong to you, which you've not only been trained is legally protected, but have signed an NDA for.

        • by Shatrat (855151)

          Bradley Manning didn't wear a T-shirt that said 'Send our Troops Home', he published confidential information and violated probably a dozen rules regulations and contracts between himself and the US Military. That's a pretty bad analogy, maybe you should try something involving cars or pizza.

          • You don't get GP's point.

            It's not about this particular case. It's about whether free speech is an absolute freedom - i.e. it means that absolutely anything and everything can be freely spoken - or whether there are reasonable limits. Historically, all countries have had such limits. In US, libel and slander laws have existed since the founding of the country, and were put in place by many of the same people who wrote the First Amendment, so clearly by "freedom of speech" they didn't mean just any kind of s

    • All sorts of things that are speech are not legal, and if you...have a youtube channel that promotes terrorism,

      As opposed to a Youtube channel that supports military actions by the right government, in which case you are fine.

      This is what happens when we compromise on fundamental rights...

    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Friday August 31, 2012 @01:05PM (#41191877) Journal

      ...governments have shown more than enough willingness to let their beliefs about criminality override the core ideal of free speech.

      I think we need to understand here that the Founding Fathers never intended absolutely unlimited right to express yourself in every possible way. Clearly even the Constitution itself puts at least limitation I can think of right off the top of my head; and that is Treason. You are not free to make contact with an enemy of the United States and start giving them the location of nuclear submarines or the alarm code to the Oval Office (yes, I know stupid examples, but I think you get the point). Clearly where speech is used to cause any form of direct harm (the "shouting fire in crowded theater" test), Congress is within its right to pass laws criminalizing such speech. The Supreme Court tends to give the First Amendment a good deal of space to breathe, but it can never be unlimited, because if it was libel and slander laws, for instance, would be unconstitutional. I could tell all your neighbors you are a child molester, and you would have no remedy at all.

      • by dwpro (520418)

        It bears mentioning that the "shouting fire in crowded theater" test was used from it's very utterance to convict a man for distributing leaflets opposing the WW1 draft [wikipedia.org], in my mind precisely what freedom of speech is meant to protect. As such, laws to lessen the potential to inflict harm via speech must be directly weighed against the potential of the law to suppress unfavorable speech, as both of these are of core importance.

      • by zzsmirkzz (974536)

        Congress is within its right to pass laws criminalizing such speech.

        No, they are not. They are within their right to pass laws criminalizing such attempts at causing harm.. The freedom of the person to speak their mind is absolute but if they do so with intent to cause harm, they can be found liable for the harm they caused, not the words they spoke.

        It is not illegal to scream "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater. It is illegal to start a panic by falsely screaming "Fire!" in a crowded theater.

    • not an impossible-to-violate core component of society.

      And this is where you types consistantly miss the point and obviously don't get it.

      • You're going to have to classify "my type" a little more clearly. What exactly do you think makes free speech literally impossible to violate?

        • I don't think its impossible to violate. I think its violated all the time. Usually by opressive governments.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 31, 2012 @12:40PM (#41191575)

    By going after someone for a silly twitter comment, you can put on a big show of pretending to do your job with no personal risk at all.

  • The problem I see. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by SuricouRaven (1897204) on Friday August 31, 2012 @12:41PM (#41191587)
    It is very hard for police or prosecution to ever back down. It's embarassing to them. Their culture doesn't allow it, and those on the political side would lose face. Once the legal action has been initiated, it cannot be stopped until a conclusion is reached. This is true in the UK as much as in the US. It's a very good reason to stay away from the police: A single mistake on their part can easily bloom into a years-long life-ruining legal struggle.
  • Pass the buck (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CharlyFoxtrot (1607527) on Friday August 31, 2012 @12:43PM (#41191609)

    The saddest part of this story is that it could've been stopped before it began: the manager who discovered the tweet, the airport police, the police, none of them thought there was a credible threat but rather than assume responsibility they decided to pass the buck to someone else effectively pushing the case further and further up the chain.

    • by PTBarnum (233319)

      So at what point should it have stopped? Who is best qualified to assess threat from a random internet posting? In my opinion, it was reasonable for the airport staff to alert the police. The police should have investigated, and most likely should have determined there was no threat before interviewing the author. However, in the worst case the interview should have cleared up any question of motive.

      • Re:Pass the buck (Score:4, Insightful)

        by sjames (1099) on Friday August 31, 2012 @01:32PM (#41192263) Homepage

        At the very bottom. Failing that, at each and every level above that. Anyone with an IQ above 70 could tell it was a joke. There is no valor in acting like a drooling moron. The lot of them should be beet red with shame and embarrassment. Their pictures should be published on the front page of the newspaper under the heading "Point and laugh at the idiots!".

        Frankly, this is a sufficiently moronic act that they should find themselves needled about it from time to time for the rest of their lives.

        • by Bucky24 (1943328)
          Problem is, no one wants to be the guy who said "aw this is just a joke, he won't bomb the airport", and then it turns out that it wasn't a joke. Yes, you're gonna be right most of the time, but the one time you're wrong.. You're going to be in a lot of trouble.
          • by sjames (1099)

            Nobody SHOULD want to be the goof that totally screwed up an innocent man's life either. I'll bet if those responsible had to send him their paychecks until he got back on his feet they would suddenly become quite willing to exercise a bit of judgement.

            The best approach might have been to just forget they saw the tweet at all.

      • However, in the worst case the interview should have cleared up any question of motive.

        That's the bad part: it did.

        "But if things weren’t quite clear to the detectives at the start, they certainly were by the time they wrote up the case file. It states: "There is no evidence at this stage that this is anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see."

        But they didn't want to appear to be soft on terrorism or whatever and so rather than make the judgement they knew to be correct they threw an innocent man into the legal system. Gutless.

    • by jeffmeden (135043)

      The saddest part of this story is that it could've been stopped before it began: the manager who discovered the tweet, the airport police, the police, none of them thought there was a credible threat but rather than assume responsibility they decided to pass the buck to someone else effectively pushing the case further and further up the chain.

      Like you would sit at your job and say "hey, some guy threatened to blow up my building, via a tweet... I am so sure this is not credible that I am willing to literally bet my (and many others') life that it isn't credible. I think i will willfully ignore it, and tell everyone that contrary to what THEY might think, there is no threat." Come on.

      The saddest part of the story is that some idiot thought it would be funny to joke about blowing up an airport. That is really it in a nutshell. If he had come

      • by sjames (1099)

        Based on the tweet in question, yes. I absolutely would completely discount the possibility that it was a real threat and go on working. For one, he did gicve them a WEEK and a bit to get opened again.

        • In the future i would think that access to 1 Lorries 2 a couple hundred kilos of explosives 3 blasting caps 4 the other random widgets should be required to make this a Plausible Threat.

          I mean come on its not like this is a Known Northern Irishman and actually COULD do anything to the airport.

      • Re:Pass the buck (Score:4, Informative)

        by CharlyFoxtrot (1607527) on Friday August 31, 2012 @02:20PM (#41192815)

        Like you would sit at your job and say "hey, some guy threatened to blow up my building, via a tweet... I am so sure this is not credible that I am willing to literally bet my (and many others') life that it isn't credible. I think i will willfully ignore it, and tell everyone that contrary to what THEY might think, there is no threat." Come on.

        Nobody thought it was a threat until the media got interested and then suddenly nobody dared to let the poor guy go. This despite the fact they were all professionals who should be able to distinguish between a threat and a bad joke. If you're not ready to make those calls you shouldn't be in a job where you have to think at all.

        - The airport manager "reported it to his superior, who rated it "non credible" as a threat"
        - Airport police then "waited two days before passing on the investigation to their colleagues at Doncaster police station" (bet they were worried, huh ?)
        - The police thought it was a joke : "[the case file ] states: "There is no evidence at this stage that this is anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see.""
        - But of course by then the media were interested so : "With Paul Chambers out on bail and "huge public and media interest" (as a further statement put it) no doubt causing jitters higher up the pecking order, South Yorkshire police turned to the CPS for a "decision on disposal""

        Once in legal system the guy's goose was cooked.

  • I agree that this should not have turned into a big case and waste of, I guess, the rate payers money. However, the tale here is not that police are overbearing, but that average people really have no common sense of decency in communicating in public. Sure, it should be perfectly legal for me to, when a baby is crying at the next table in a restaurant, to turn to the parent and tell them that if the baby does not quit crying I will drown the baby, blow up their house, then fly planes into their in laws h
  • ...that they didn't shot him 7 times in the head:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_Jean_Charles_de_Menezes [wikipedia.org]

  • by bogie (31020)

    You should really read the full article. I know a whole 5 pages wahhh, but seriously it is well written and a very scary tale of someone being railroaded by the legal system. It was only through the charity of some celebrities and twitterers that he was able to appeal and get it overturned. Most of us would just be screwed and have to live with it. In the end he still had to go through losing his job and the ordeal of being a convicted criminal. Sad.

  • Great Britain to me has become a regime of politically correct tyranny and is not a country I will ever visit for any reason.
    Which is sad, because I've always gotten along quite well with Brits, but their laws and they're willingness to abide by rule of hyper-sensitive sissy boys and have the government be their nanny is quite deplorable.

    Lay down and be calm while your wife and children are raped and murdered -- the PC-person willnbevthere shortly.
    Do not say anything that might ever hurt the feelings of som

    • by admdrew (782761)

      Dang, that's a whole lotta vitriol. There are definitely worse places to visit in the world that are way more politically dangerous and have far fewer rights than the UK&I.

      But hey, to each their own.

  • Ve have always told you zat ze Britisch have no humour! At all! Ha-Ha!

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