Stephen Fry and Al Murray in court to back Paul Chambers’s appeal against conviction for Twitter threat to blow up airport
A message sent on Twitter threatening to blow up a snowbound airport unless it reopened was not “menacing” and was like a comic cracking a joke on stage, the lord chief justice was told at the high court.
In the latest appeal by Paul Chambers against his criminal conviction on Wednesday, in what has become known as the Twitter joke trial, John Cooper QC told a panel of three senior judges that the punishment for a tweet sent to about 600 followers in January 2010 should be overturned because a district judge had misapplied the law and the conviction was in breach of human rights laws relating to freedom of expression.
When Chambers sent the tweet that landed him a £1,000 fine and a criminal record, he had arranged to fly from Doncaster to Northern Ireland to see a woman he had just met. He wrote: “Crap!
Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”
A week later the message was found by an off-duty airport employee and Chambers was arrested. He was later convicted at Doncaster crown court of sending a message of a “menacing character” under the Communications Act 2003.
The case has become a cause célèbre for those concerned about freedom of expression and the way the courts police social media, as well as attracting the interest of top comedians. Chambers arrived in court accompanied by Stephen Fry, Al Murray and Graham Linehan, who have supported him throughout his legal battle.
“This was not a message he sent to the gentleman who accessed it,” Cooper told Lord Judge, Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Griffith Williams. “The appellant had around 600 followers who had deliberately elected to follow his account.
“His account was mainly humorous in tone and touched on a developing relationship. All those who followed him would have known this and would have realised the perspective from which this man was communicating.”
He said the case might turn on a judgment of whether the tweet was of “menacing character” and Judge agreed, saying: “That rather is our view and that is what we have to address”.
Cooper told the court the message was in the context of an “informal discussion and a humorous discussion”.
He highlighted the exclamation marks after “Crap!” and “sky high!!”, adding: “the expression ‘you have a week and a bit’ is hardly indicative of a threat intended to be menacing.
He said Chambers had not sought to hide his identity and said this was “certainly not a message sent by a terrorist and it was wrong of the crown court in Doncaster to make a connection between this case and terrorism”.
Cooper said in Chambers’s case the test for whether a message was menacing was significantly higher than whether it was a threat and that this was shown in its definition in laws relating to theft and blackmail. He said a menacing threat should cause “the mind of an ordinary person of normal stability and courage” to be “influenced or made apprehensive” and that the person sending the message must intend to threaten the person to whom it is likely to be conveyed. Chambers’s tweet fell short of these tests, he said, adding “not all threats are menacing”.
Cooper said the conviction failed to take into account human rights legislation relating to freedom of expression. He employed a well-known legal analogy relating to shouting “fire!” in a theatre.
“The analogy is not of a man in the audience shouting ‘fire!’ but of that of a comedian on the stage shouting the same thing and the context in which he shouted ‘fire!’ would be understood would be well known – a joke,” said Cooper. “The whole rationale of the Communications Act was not intended to take into account this sort of [media] platform.”
He added: “It is society that will rule on whether that joke is acceptable and not a criminal code … There is a right enshrined for people to make jokes that others may regard as offensive.” He said if jokes were vetted according to a criminal code, Betjeman would have had cause to be concerned when he wrote “come friendly bombs fall on Slough”, adding “and Shakespeare when he said ‘kill all the lawyers’”.
Judge replied, “That was a good joke in 1600 and it is still a good joke now,” following laughter in court.
Chambers’s legal team argued the tweet should only be considered a “message” under law when it was sent to the followers for whom it was intended. When it was later searched for and discovered, as by the off-duty airport security officer, it should no longer be considered a message sent by an individual, not least because it might be shorn of its context.
“Messages on the public timeline are capable of being searched but the practical reality is that it is highly unlikely that they are outside the core follower of a particular tweeter,” said Cooper.
Robert Smith QC, appearing for the director of public prosecutions, did not accept this argument. “By any view he was foolish to do what he did,” he said. “The question remains by whose standards and what members of the society would view this as a joke or humorous given that members of society who had access to the message may not or would not have knowledge of the circumstance which led Mr Chambers to send the message.”
He said a message is menacing if a person of reasonable fortitude feels it to be. The hearing continues.