Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Today's game: don't annoy CPS; why the twitter-bomb-hoax means I can't say much

Well some of you may be pleased to know I can't really talk about much any more. The reason? well, as explained in this excellent article from JackOfKent in his new bad law column the trial (BBC summary) of Paul Chambers is set to close soon. He's being convicted for posting the following on twitter:
"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"
Now the important part of this is that CPS is not prosecuting him for making a false bomb threat (they admit that there isn't enough evidence that he intended to cause a panic by this) so instead they pressing charges of
"Improper use of public electronic communications network"
Which is an offence for anyone who:
sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; 
As the Bad Law column points  out this law was intended to stop nuisance callers and their ilk; not to mop up people that have mentioned the word bomb but aren't making a threat.

Now why this concerns me is that while the tweet concerned is threatening, it is still obviously a joke (which is why Paul is not being prosecuted for making bomb threats), so at what point does something stop being a joke and start being threatening (or 'menacing' as the law states)? The following statements are all the latter but are here as examples:
"It would be so easy to inject heavy metals into the air conditioning units at Heathrow poisoning everyone"
"Anthrax is a terrorist's dream substance, it looks just like talcum powder"
Now using the CPS's logic if I now go to an airport (or other public place such as the university I'm currently sitting in) this constitutes a threat. These two statements could just as easily be from a security discussion as threats and while they would have to be taken out of their current context to constitute threats I think it is fairly obvious that this is what has already happened Paul's case.

In fact this could have happened to me recently: I had a trip to Hamburg for a meeting, running late in I put on the first t-shirt to hand before leaving, this t-shirt in fact:

for most of the day I had a coat and hoody but during the inevitable security check I had take them both off which of course revealed my horribly inflammatory t-shirt to a security guard who promptly told me off and that I could get in trouble if I wasn't careful. I didn't realise how close to real trouble I had come, given how the CPS have treated this case I doubt they'd struggle to find some law that made my t-shirt wearing chargeable.

This is a sad case, its set to make a criminal of someone who was understandably frustrated and said something stupid. It shouldn't have escalated at all, let alone to the point where they may set new precedent that anything said electronically while near a possible bomb target (ie anywhere public) no matter what the intention behind it can be treated and charged as a threat.

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