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Twitter and Facebook users less likely to face prosecution under new guidelines

Twitter users may no longer be prosecuted, under new guidelines Photo: PA Wire

Fewer criminal charges are likely to be brought against people who post offensive messages on Twitter or Facebook, under new guidelines.

Criminal prosecutions against people posting offensive online messages have controversially mushroomed in the past 18 months.

New guidelines are needed because of the potential for a "chilling effect on free speech" as thousands of people could be accused of being criminals every month, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC has said.

The guidelines proposed are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and upholding criminal law.

Now, social media messages which amount to credible threats of violence; a targeted campaign of harassment; or which breach court orders will be prosecuted robustly.

'Grossly offensive' messages however could be prosecuted Credit: PA Wire

Aggressive "trolling" would also probably fall under this banner as it could be specifically targeted and constitute harassment or stalking, Mr Starmer said.

But potentially "grossly offensive" messages will now only be prosecuted if they cross a high threshold.

The guidelines point out that context is important and the tone of social media messages is different to other communications.

For criminal charges to be brought, a message must now be shown to be more than offensive, shocking or disturbing; more than satirical, iconoclastic or rude; and more than the expression of an unpopular or unfashionable opinion, the guidelines state.

Also if a message is swiftly deleted, blocked by service providers or websites or shown not to be intended for a wider audience, a prosecution is unlikely.

Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions Credit: PA Wire

The message must be "obviously" beyond what is rightly considered tolerable or acceptable in a diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression.

Any prosecution must be in the public interest and therefore "necessary and proportionate".

But prosecutors must also weigh whether vulnerable victims may be more affected by offensive tweets than others and consider this in any decision to bring charges.

The guidelines also state that children (under-18s) will rarely face criminal charges for offensive tweets or Facebook statuses, for example.

While intended for the CPS to make a decision whether to charge someone or not, the guidelines are also designed to offer early advice to police.

The interim guidelines take effect immediately and are now subject to a consultation process.

  • The man who was found guilty of sending a menacing message on Twitter after he joked about blowing an airport had his conviction quashed in July this year.
  • The case has had implications for the way online communication is dealt with by the courts.
  • The May 2010 conviction of Paul Chambers for joking on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire is one of most well-known cases in this area.
  • His conviction for sending a "menacing" tweet drew widespread condemnation and was eventually quashed on appeal in the High Court.
  • Keir Starmer QC admits that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) made the wrong "judgment call" to prosecute the 28-year-old.