Prosecutors clarify UK law on offensive social media posts

The Director of Public Prosecutions has said that people should only face trial if their social media comments go beyond being offensive.

This year there have been a host of arrests due to malicious or misjudged tweets and comments on social media.

A memorable example would be the arrest of a 17 year-old after a series of tweets he directed at Olympic diver Tom Daley. One of the tweets claimed Daley had let down his Father who died of cancer last year.

A tweet from Paul Chambers who joked about blowing up Doncaster airport would fit nicely into the ‘misjudged’ category. I’m sure he got a bit of a shock when the police turned up on his doorstep.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has now dealt with over 50 such cases and decided it’s time some new guidelines were introduced. In their press release they state that these guidelines are designed to give clear advice to prosecutors and ensure a consistent approach.

These interim guidelines are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law.

They make a clear distinction between communications which amount to credible threats of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment against an individual or which breach court orders on the one hand, and other communications sent by social media, e.g. those that are grossly offensive, on the other.

The result should be fewer charges. Any posts that pose a credible threat of violence, breach a court order or constitute stalking or harassment will still result in prosecution. However, posts that are offensive will face a rigorous assessment and will only be pursued if it is deemed to be in the public interest. They will only proceed with these cases when they are deemed more than:

  • Offensive, shocking or disturbing.
  • Satirical, iconoclastic or rude.
  • The expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.

Charges are also less likely to be sought if the user shows remorse. This is good news for anyone who’s ever badly misjudged a tweet after a few too many drinks, but later gone on to delete the comment and apologise for it.

One word that is not mentioned is racism. Given that racist comments have been the basis for many arrests, it seems strange that the issue has not been addressed directly in these guidelines.

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