Twitter prosecutions 'may fall'

Fewer criminal charges are likely to be brought against people who post offensive messages on Twitter or Facebook, under new guidelines published today by the Crown Prosecution Service.

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New guidelines on social media welcomed

(The guidance) takes a common sense approach and will help support consistency from prosecutors and police.

– Chief Constable Andy Trotter, of the Association of Chief Police Officers

This distinction between communications which constitute a credible threat and those which may merely cause offence is sorely needed. In particular, we welcome the guideline which makes a prosecution more likely if a victim is specifically targeted and this has a significant impact on them.

– Javed Khan, chief executive of charity Victim Support

Offensive Tweets 'may not be prosecuted'

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

Offensive Tweets may not be prosecuted, under the new guidelines Credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

People often make spontaneous jokes or engage in offensive banter and comments "intended for a few may reach millions".

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.

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.

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Social media comments protected by free speech, says QC

  • New guidelines on social media charges are needed in order to protect the freedom of speech, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC has said.
  • The guidelines 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.
  • 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.

Social media laws review called after court judgement

Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions Credit: Lewis Whyld/PA Archive

The man who was found guilty of sending a menacing message on Twitter after he joked about blowing up 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.

New guidelines on social media charges

New guidelines are needed on social media, says QC Credit: Yui Mok/PA Archive

Fewer criminal charges are likely to be brought against people who post offensive messages on Twitter or Facebook, under new guidelines set out by Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC.

But the question of whether the country needs new laws to deal with offensive posts on social media is a question for Parliament, Mr Starmer said.

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, Mr Starmer said.

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