The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is well remunerated to exercise her opinions every week in her Independent column. Her free expression keeps a roof over her head, so you’d expect her to be forgiving when others exercise their rights. Sadly not. Whilst she didn’t call the police about Cllr Compton, she says she would have done so, and has backed up the CPS position that these tweets are “menacing”.

On Thursday, comedy writer Graham Lineham wrote an excellent piece for Index on Censorship:

“The Twitter joke trial is the clearest indication yet that the world is divided into two sorts of people at the moment. The people who ‘get it’, and the people who don’t.”

Sadly, those who don’t get it include the Police, the Crown Prosecution Service, the judiciary, and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

For a single tweet, Paul Chambers now has a criminal record, is facing a £1,000 fine, plus the costs from his original conviction and after Thursday another £2,600 worth of costs. At 27, he is branded a criminal and has lost his job.

There’s no doubt that what Chambers tweeted…

“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!”

… was stupid. But the response has been absolutely disproportionate.

Originally, Chambers was arrested because the police felt compelled to investigate his “bomb threat”. After his arrest, officers felt that the threat from the tweet had not been credible.

Yet, the CPS subsequently brought charges against Chambers, not for the original arrest charge, which would have needed a high threshold for evidence of a viable bomb plot, but instead he became the first person in the UK to be charged for a tweet under section 127 of the Communications Act of 2003.

As Jack of Kent points out, the CPS regard section 127 as a “strict liability” offence, which in practice means they don’t need to provide any evidence whatsoever of intention before they prosecute. This is significant. No one would suggest that Paul Chambers intended to “menace” people from his tweet (or be grossly offensive, indecent, or obscene).

But for the CPS this is irrelevant. The tweet alone was enough for them to launch their prosecution. Just placing the tweet on a website is enough for them to prosecute.

Even free speech fundamentalists agree with US Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s point that free speech would not protect an idiot who shouted fire in a crowded theatre and caused a panic. Though as one of the most ardent free speech campaigners alive today, Aryeh Neier, points out in Index on Censorship magazine (“Radio Redux”):

“… the stress on circumstances is crucial. If the theatre were empty at the time, there would be no panic and, therefore, in Holmes’s judgement, no basis for punishing the false shout of fire.”

English law now seems to suggest that merely to shout fire is enough to initiate a prosecution – which is utterly chilling for free expression.

It isn’t just the CPS who don’t get it. Judge Jacqueline Davies said Chambers was an “an unimpressive witness”, adding:

“… the words in the message speak for themselves and they were sent at a time when the security threat to this country was substantial… Any ordinary person would have been menaced by the tweet.”

This isn’t a one-off. On Thursday, Tory councillor Gareth Compton was arrested for a “menacing tweet”. Idiotically he tweeted:

“Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really.”

Now, I find this offensive and imagine most people do – but there is a huge difference between stupidity and criminal behaviour. With the Chambers case setting the case law, it is likely he could face a huge fine. The Conservatives have suspended him from the party. Again, someone faces a criminal record (and the end of their career: Compton is a barrister) for an idiotic comment on twitter.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is well remunerated to exercise her opinions every week in her Independent column. Her free expression keeps a roof over her head, so you’d expect her to be forgiving when others exercise their rights. Sadly not. Whilst she didn’t call the police about Cllr Compton, she says she would have done so, and has backed up the CPS position that these tweets are “menacing”.

And Labour’s position? Labour backbenches found themselves suddenly exercised by the ghost of Thomas Paine this week as they defended the fundamental right of Phil Woolas to lie on election material / generally be idiotic (see my thoughts on this here), but sadly this free expression zeal doesn’t seem to extend to other political parties.

Steve McCabe, Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, said:

“It is staggering that the Conservative Party allowed Gareth Compton to represent the people of Birmingham in the first place. His despicable comments on Twitter show that he has no place in public office.”

Maybe – I certainly think Cllr Compton’s comments show a lack of judgement – but, what no Labour MP has tackled is whether they think Cllr Compton should be prosecuted. That’s at the heart of this debate, not mere offence, but whether people should be prosecuted for a criminal offence over a single tweet.

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34 Responses to “The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter”

  1. Paul Seery

    RT @leftfootfwd: The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  2. Amir Ammar

    The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don't get Twitter …

  3. Philip Painter

    RT @leftfootfwd: The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  4. Norvik_1602

    RT @leftfootfwd: The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  5. merthyr_bill

    I agree with an article on LFF! Heavens be praised!

    Now,if the police, CPS and judiciary could concentrate on crime rather than policing how we talk to each other, maybe the cuts won’t have the dire effects they are predicted to.

  6. IanHPA

    A tweet, even a single tweet, is not the same as chatting to your friends. Stupid jokes or gratuitously offensive personal attacks are, in effect being published for the whole world to view when submitted to twitter. The question of what is a proportionate response to such malice or foolishness needs careful consideration, but the boundaries of free speech should not, perhaps, be delineated by fools and insult hurling abusers.

  7. Boffy

    For the last 30 years comedy has increasingly gone down a route of being outrageous and offensive. Did anyone really beleive the clown Kenny Everett was being serious when he shouted out “Let’s Bomb Russia”? The Left has not been slow to use offence and outrage to satirise the establishment, and many ordinary people now beleive that what would have been considered unreasonable behaviour, language etc. is now perfectly normal. In fact, in a world where what was once outrageous is now taken as normal you have to be even more shocking to make an impact. This is another aspect of dumbing down, and celebrity culture. What was once an acceptable piece of outrageous satire for an Alexei Sayle to come out with on TV, increasingly people think is ok in everyday life – and to be honest why shouldn’t it be?

    When TV is full of people being “funny” by humiliating other people, being rude to other people, and so on, why should we wonder why kids mimic that attitude, and we then call it anti-social behaviour. I have no doubt that when Thatcher pops her clogs there will be many people on the Left who will respond in a less than reverend manner. We shouldn’t complain too much when others adopt similar practices. Its called free speech.

  8. merthyr_bill

    And who should delineate the boundaries of free speech? You? The Labour Party? Yasmin Alibayah-Brown?

  9. John Bamber

    So what do you think is unacceptable in a tweet? Racist comments or incitemant to racial hatred or violence? Let’s face it the moronic comments of the Brummie barrister are skirting that particular line anyway and if he spouts this garbage in a public forum perhaps he should lose his job. I certainly wouldn’t want to be represented by him, and if this statute forces people like him to keep their nasty little prejudices private, I can’t say that I’m sorry.

  10. StephenH

    the Robin Hood bloke should have been cautioned for wasting police time– nothing more. Simply because the police are compelled to check it out such utter nonsense. The CPS have lost the plot here.

    The second bloke should simply have been allowed to make a pillock of himself.

  11. Melissa Nicole Harry

    RT @leftfootfwd The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter #twitterjoketrial

  12. Mr. Sensible

    I cannot believe that people are defending these 2 idiots.

    “But the response has been absolutely disproportionate.”

    No it hasn’t; you just do not say things like that. When you say things like that the authorities have to take you seriously and work on the assumption the threat is genuine.

    As for Mr Compton, again, you just do not say things like that.

    These 2 idiots seem to have used Twitter forgetting that the whole world can possibly see what they’re saying.

    As I said on another thread earlier this morning I cannot believe that the Twittersphere is defending them.

  13. Rob Stickler

    RT @leftfootfwd: The CPS, judiciary and Yasmin Alibhai Brown just don’t get Twitter: writes @Cllr_MikeHarris

  14. Justin

    A few months ago I found out that the Police/CPS etc like to “Test” new laws. I wonder if something similar is happening here. Although the case I’m referring to was in Scotland and was a very strange case that involved 2 maids, unlocking a door and walking in on a man in a compromising position with a bicycle (i swear I’m not making this up) it resulted in a man being prosecuted, fined, placed on the sex offenders list and getting a criminal record. When the prosecutors were asked if it was appropriate for the man to have been prosecuted they said that they just wanted to see if a new law, which they wanted to test, could be applied in this case, and that they were expecting him to plead not guilty. But he pleaded guilty. Understandably because he wanted to get it over and done with and avoid the obvious embarrassment that a long court case would cause. In short they ruined a man’s life for a theoretical exercise. I wonder whether more stringent guidelines for “is it in the public interest” should be given to the various prosecuting bodies. Or in the current climate, perhaps no win no fee should be brought in for criminal barristers, that way they might refuse cases were it’s obvious state agencies are just chancing their arm.

  15. New Labour Boy

    Conservative Home Local Govt site is fizzing with the comments of blogistas, worth a look. My opinion after reading leading case DPP v Mills, best course of action re Compton, formal complaints to Con Party, SB and Bar Council; not really a Police matter, but have to bear in mind if they receive complaint of alleged strict liability offence have little choice but to investigate itand question alleged miscreant under caution.

  16. merthyr_bill

    The first guy did nothing wrong. Any police time wasters would be the people that reported him. If I announced on twitter I was committing a diamond heist tomorrow at x o’clock, the police can use their common sense to either use or disregard that information. Generally these things are not announced on twitter an so probably best ignored.

    As for the second guy. This is free speech pure and simple. “As for Mr Compton, again, you just do not say things like that.” Why not? Which laws do you want that govern how we as individuals talk to each other? It wasn’t incitement. It was maybe rude or offensive but so what. So is Russell Brand.

  17. Mr. Sensible

    ‘Merthyr_Bill’, as I said if a threat like that is made, the police cannot afford to take chances. For, if he had gone on to blow it up and the police did nothing there would be as much of an outcry.

    And saying you want someone stoned to death isn’t ‘freedom of speach’; it’s, well, I don’t know what. I might not have necesarily agreed with what she was saying, but I would not have wanted her to be killed because of it.

    And for the record I think Russell Brand should have been delt with more severely after ‘Phone Gate.’

  18. A Kendal

    I’m not sure how Chambers can be regarded as having wasted police time – he didn’t involve them on spurious grounds.

    As to Compton, I’m relieved to know I’m not alone in thinking the response has been ridiculous.

    Some of the comments here are fascinating: it appears that being stupid is now a criminal offence – and some posters here apparently agree. Indeed, some of the posters here – and this is the root of the issue, I think – seem to believe that they have a right not to be offended, by stupidity or anything else, for that matter.

    The point of free speech is not feeling good about allowing anything you agree with with while finding excuses to censor or criminalise everything that you don’t like: ‘free speech’ means understanding that you have to allow things that you don’t like as well. That’s when it appears to get difficult for some people – that’s what some people do not appear to ‘get’.

    Boffy mentioned Margaret Thatcher: has nobody ever expressed a sentiment, in the past 30 years or so and within the hearing of others, that someone should get rid of her? Should they have been prosecuted too?

    Where do you want to stop? People will say distasteful things when she finally does die. There’ll be celebrations. There’ll be parties. Will that be out of order of order too – or will it only be out of order when someone applauds the eventual death of Nelson Mandela?

    Excellent post. And clearly well needed.

  19. merthyr_bill

    “And saying you want someone stoned to death isn’t ‘freedom of speach’; it’s, well, I don’t know what.”

    – you’ll have to do better than that. either it’s free speech or a crime (threat, slander,libel etc).

    what is it? i think it is offensive but legal. it wasn’t a threat and it wasn’t incitement. you can’t just get the law and police to arrest and charge people for saying things you don’t like.

    and what would you have done with Russell Brand? Jail time? You think he should have been dealt with “more severely”. By who? In the context of the current discussion I’m assuming you mean the police.

    Mr. Sensible, you are a very scary person.

  20. Mr. Sensible

    Bill you could actually turn the argument about ‘free speach’ on its head in the Compton case; here was a woman who expressed her opinion on a radio show, and because Compton presumably disagreed with her he said she should be stoned to death. What do you call that?

    And BTW I think the BBC were more than a bit lenient with both Brand and Ross in that case.

  21. Anon E Mouse

    Fantastic piece by Left Foot Forward. Too many of our hard earned civil liberties were eroded under the last government with it’s control orders, 42 day detention and thousands of control freak laws.

    I wait to see what this coalition government is going to do about this because when we live in a world where a cartoon of a religious figure results in death threats something is very very wrong.

    I was especially annoyed to hear this horrible woman refuse to condemn the actions of Saudi Arabia with female genital mutilation, stoning and the inequality of men and woman.

    Yasmin Brown should be ashamed of herself for not just ignoring this.

    Control freaks like Mr.Sensible will always want to live in a Stalinist type state but he is in the minority here and should be ignored like this disgraceful woman…

  22. Mr. Sensible

    Mr Mouse are you honestly saying it is acceptable to post that you are going to blow something up and say you want someone stoned to death?

    I certainly do not think it is acceptable.

    You may call it free speach, but I call it completely unacceptable.

  23. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – It’s called a JOKE. You may or may not find it funny but it’s still a JOKE.

    For some reason the left in this country has become a humourless zone of seriousness but let’s quickly test see if you think the following is fair.

    I personally think that joking about the act of stoning a woman to death is less serious that the actions of a country, like Iran, to actually carry out those acts. Yet this horrible woman says she will NOT condemn Saudi Arabia for its actions yet she complains when someone jokes about stoning her claiming; “It upset my daughter”.

    Well so bloody what? It upsets me when homosexuals are executed for their sexuality or little girls are sexually mutilated for religious reasons or Muslims threaten to behead people who make jokes about their prophet in this country. It upsets me when people complain to the BBC about Jerry Springer but so what?

    I reserve the right to be upset and to upset people if I want. I reserve the right to be offended and to offend people if I want. That’s called freedom.

    This country has taken centuries to achieve that freedom of speech. Control freaks like yourself Mr.Sensible exemplify exactly what people hate about the left at the moment and if you think Labour will ever be elected again if it’s supporters hold your views you are seriously mistaken…

  24. Cllr Mike Harris

    Anon E Mouse, do you think there’s a slight irony in attacking Labour as anti-free speech in the comments section of an article strongly defending free speech, written by a Labour Councillor?!

    I know Labour have a patchy record here – but we did introduce the Human Rights Act which gives the staunchest defence of free speech we have in Article 10.

    And the Conservatives have hardly rallied to Cllr Compton – instead suspending him.

  25. Anon E Mouse

    Mike Harris – I’m agreeing with free speech – Labour were the party of control orders and CCTV though, irrespective of the views of one of their councillors and being anti-Labour rather than pro-Tory I don’t care what they do but they shouldn’t have suspended that councillor either.

    If you read the comments in this blog regularly you’ll realise that there are several commentators who want to rewrite history regarding the Labour Party and still support big state control freakery.

    My remarks are in response to one of these apparatchiks – namely Mr.Sensible – who want to live in a Stalinist state where no individualism is allowed.

    Finally I would just remind you that despite the message from the Labour councillor who I agree with (I also like Charles Clarke, Tony Benn – free thinkers regardless of their parties) it was the Labour government that introduced the very laws that caused the “offence” described here…

  26. New Labour Boy

    This is getting a bit too much like Con Home Local Govt; I urge you to read it sometime. We are losing sight of fact that Compton is both a Barrister and a Councillor and this could unfairly in my opinion, ruin his career, as a similar complaint did for Chambers the bungling airport bomber tweeter. Pity Lord Bingham died so prematurely, would love to have had benefit of his views. Leading case DPP v Collins an example of appalling racist messages being left on ansaphone, not a naive ironic, puerile non menacing off the cuff tweeted comment.

  27. Anon E Mouse

    New Labour Boy – Seems the problem is in how that act is interpreted.

    A person is guilty of an offence if he— (a) 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.

    Which part of that act did that awful woman say he’d invoked?

    If I’d been him, telling a joke the way it clearly is, I’d have stuck to my guns, not apologised and told her to bugger off.

    Personally her views on America sicken me but that’s the way freedom of speech works. Or is supposed to.

  28. Mr. Sensible

    Mr Mouse, is it right, then, that Compton tweets that he wants her stoned to death for what she said about America?

  29. Firsttimer

    Is Twitter really a “hard won civil liberty”? Maybe it’s Twitter users who don’t “get it”.

    It feels like chatting – casual, informal, unguarded – but in fact it is a publishing platform that broadcasts your words to the world. With such power comes responsibility.

    If Compton had sent that message to her in an email – wouldn’t he also be open to prosecution?

  30. Anon E Mouse

    Mr.Sensible – You are asking an un-knowable hypothetical question which is just silly really. It was a JOKE. Nothing more and nothing less…

    Alibhai-Brown is frankly a disgrace, interested only in perpetuating her biased anti-Labour views over the Iraq War and she needs to be sacked for her control freak attitude to free speech.

    If she doesn’t like it here she should head to Saudi Arabia, a country she has so far refused to condemn but she is so frightened of a Muslim backlash she says nothing unless it applies to her personally.

    She is a hypocritical woman and (for once) I have to agree with Tom Watson about her pathetic views…

  31. New Labour Boy

    It appears that YAB did not complain to the Police, but a concerned member of the public lodged the complaint.I am a retired LGO who had a long career in regulatory and legal advice services. We got complaints from stakeholders, some of whom knew which alleged offence had allegedly been committed,others gave us a statement,left it up to us what action to take eg might tip us off that counterfeit cigs were being sold at X (no pun intended) others might have been victims of some scam or fraud, in all cases we looked at relevant statutes, regs and case law before taking action.Would average copper be aware of CA2003 s127, as opposed to say Fraud Act 2006, difficult to say, so perhaps advice of CPS sought. Arrest sounds dramatic, but GC, a barrister, should know how best to deal with iview under caution.According to Birmingham Mail YAB does not want GC to be charged, but as it is a strict liability alleged offence that may not sway cops and CPS. Apparently GC may have some previous,but non criminal, as regards ill advised tweets. Con Home Local Govt site has some interesting and well written tweets concerning the legal aspects of GCs predicament, 167 posted in all, but not all of them relevant or coherent so be prepared for a lengthy scrolling session.

  32. Yusuf

    The anonymousness of the Internet, makes people feels even safer then in car ranting and leads to statements that one would not make face to face. Many people may have muttered to themselves the comments the MP made, but his stupidity was to post, to him what was a joke, but to the others was outrageous statement.

    Yet people like YAB only amplify their hypocrisy if they hold certain beliefs but stay quiet when a selected religion/ideology/race/country/culture does wrong. Can we take YAB seriously she admits to racism against White Middle Class Men yet happy to take a cheque for writing articles for the Daily Mail?

    YAB argued Britain’s cruel Empire means Britain today has no right to past judgement on other countries. When Nick Griffin was on Question Time, Jack Straw criticized the BNP use of images of WW2 in their campaigns, and Griffin responded that whilst his dad was in the RAF in WW2, Straw’s was in prison for refusing to fight. Does what your ancestor did reflect who you are now? Do states have to hold their current ideology on what happened generations ago? Is YAB who was born in Uganda, a victim of the British Empire or a tyrannical leader who forced Asians to leave?

    If her belief is that British Politicians should not give advice on human rights because of the British Empires wrong doings then does she criticise German and Japanese politicians who advocate peace, should today’s American Politicians be held in account for crimes to native Americans, Italians for the ills of the Roman Empire, Egyptians for the slavery of the Jews? Has she forgotten about British White Middle Class Men like William Wilberforce? Of course its more convenient to lump everyone into the same box.

    After September 11th many young Muslims I knew were fully in support of Osama Bin Laden, some Imams were teaching very extreme views especially on Israel, and during the Iraq War people’s anger grew. It wasn’t much of a surprise that we saw young British born and bred, well-educated men kill and maim in their distorted view of Islam on 7/7. This brought about the full wave of Islamiphobia in the UK led by tabloid knee jerk reaction and countered by certain media criticising reactionaries more then looking at the root cause.
    The extremist views should have been diffused within the Muslim community but quietly left to grow to the levels of extreme hatred.

    People in influential positions like YAB should have a bit more backbone in staying true to their values, instead by refusing to criticise China, Saudi Arabia and Iran can only make her look weak and hypocritical.

    Here in Britain we scream bloody murder over the rights of gay people to marry, or become priests or rights to free speech. Yet China only as recently as 2001 removed homosexuality as an mental illness and still in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Nigeria, Mauritania being gay is still punished with the death penalty. In Pakistan people like Asia Bibi are being sentenced to death for blasphemy. In Britain some people can’t see the wood for the trees when it comes to issues of freedom.

    In terms of free speech I find it interesting how certain people are happy to go along with the idea until something effects them. If anyone remembers Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti who had to go into hiding for her play Behzti – Dishonour. The violent protest against her play by certain members of the Sikh community got her play banned from a Birmingham theatre. Likewise Isaac Hayes who played Chef on South Park was only too happy to take the p. out of almost every religion and culture until he left over an episode featuring his own belief- Scientology.

    In the case of people protesting the BBC’s airing of Jerry Springer Opera it was not the play itself they were unhappy about, most did not protest against the play being held in public theatres where people paid to see it. They were protesting against as BBC licence payers, and that a public licensed organisation showing something, which they deemed offensive to their beliefs. I do not think they would have protested had it been shown by another network where programming was paid for by advertisers. Just like some Muslims disagreed with Salman Rushdies Satanic Verses, some did not protest at the publishing of the book. But if the BBC were to broadcast the Satanic Verses series on TV they might have a change of heart.

  33. New Labour Boy

    Problem is that internet does not appear to be so anonymous, if used for defamatory or potentially criminal comments, opinions etc. Wish that it was used more by bloggers like Yusuf, balanced, intelligent, analytical. Wonder what areas of law GC specialises in; anyone know?

  34. Anon E Mouse

    Yusuf – Good comments fella…

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