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November 14, 2010

#twitterjoketrial: Stephen Fry defends Twitter joke in the innocence of the lost

#twitterjoketrial is one of many currently trending topics on Twitter, on how the UK justice system is convicted people for tweeting. The Guardian wrote last week that arrests, convictions and libel claims look like tweeting has lost its innocence.

First up is a conviction passed to Paul Chambers, for “menace” after he made a joke on Twitter about blowing up an airport. This is what he said: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” This was sent to a mother in Northern Ireland he met online. It was said to be a “menacing threat to security”.

For those that don’t know, Robin Hood is a heroic outlaw in English folklore, known for “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor”. And no, there is no airport named after him. To my knowledge Sherwood Forest, where he is supposed to have lived in Nottinghamshire, is far too remote to warrant an airport. He may have been a menace to the Sheriff years ago, but a threat to national security?

Then earlier last week, the high court in the UK was uncomfortably discombobulated with the question of whether a tweet about match-fixing in cricket was defamatory. Libel judge Mr Justice Tugendhat was said to have “needed the help of two experts” to understand what a tweet actually is, how it is “distributed” and exactly what to call “individuals who have received in the jurisdiction a direct and automatic communication of the tweet from the defendant”, which is long-winded legalese for “followers”.

In this case, an influential man in Indian cricket accused a New Zealand cricketer of match fixing. He was sued and the Indian cricketer argued in court that “the case could not proceed because no one in England had actually read his tweet”.

In the former case, Stephen Fry was first on the scene to decry the verdict of Paul Chambers and tweeted the offer to pay his fine, which stands at £3,600 when combined with prosecution costs. “My offer still stands,” he said. “Whatever they fine you, I’ll pay.”

Again, early last week, a Conservative councillor tweeted what he only admits to as “a glib comment”: “Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death?” This was in response to the writer’s criticism of Prime Minister David Cameron’s performance in China.

A party spokesman then said the rogue councillor had been “suspended indefinitely” over the alleged tweet and that “language of this sort is not acceptable and as a result Gareth Compton’s membership of the Conservative party has been indefinitely suspended pending further investigation.”

For the rather timid joke about Robin Hood airport, a comedian was said to be “rendered gag-less” at the news and commented: “An astonishing, ludicrous result in #twitterjoketrial. A victory for crushing literalism and scaremongering by the judiciary…So that’s the banning of sarcasm, irony, sub-text and any of the other subtleties of language that we use…” Another comedian said of the trial, with which I agree: “Flippancy is important”.

Now this is where it all gets very messy. While freedom of expression groups, like Index on Censorship, say the law is being used to “stifle [online communication] through unsuited legislation”, the legal profession is sending its senior lawyers to a “Tweet School” where they can learn how to use it. Alibhai-Brown said she regarded the “stoning” comments as incitement to murder.

Meanwhile, back in the “real world”, The Sun newspaper published a story about “fanatical Muslims” burning a giant poppy in an Armistice Day “outrage” when a 40-strong radical group Islam4UK screamed insults about Britain’s war dead during the nation’s two-minute silence last Thursday, demanding Sharia law be imposed in the UK.

And that’s the point where flippancy, libel and lawyers attending “Tweet School” all get lost in the legal haze of Twitter trials — the alleged innocence of the lost.

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