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Nick Cohen
Monday 20th September 2010
Let's Kill Some of the Lawyers!

I've a piece in the Observer about the shocking treatment of Paul Chambers. To summarise, the 27-year-old worked for a car parts company in Yorkshire. He and a woman from Northern Ireland started to follow each other on Twitter. He liked her tweets and she liked his and boy met girl in a London pub. They got on as well in person as they did in cyberspace. To the delight of their followers, Paul announced he would be flying from Robin Hood airport in Doncaster to Northern Ireland to meet her for a date.

In January, he saw a newsflash that snow had closed the airport. "Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed," he tweeted to his friends. "You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"

He wasn't a terrorist nor was he making a bomb hoax call in cyberspace. As I say,

    People joke like this all the time. When they say in a bar: "I'll strangle my boyfriend if he hasn't done the washing up" or post on Facebook: "I'll murder my boss if he makes me work late", it does not mean that the bodies of boyfriends and bosses will soon be filling morgues.

You know the difference between making a joke and announcing a murder, I'm sure. Apparently the forces of law and order do not.

A plain-clothes detective from South Yorkshire Police arrived at Chambers's work. Instead of quietly pointing out that it was best not to joke about blowing up airports, he arrested him under antiterrorist legislation. A posse of four more antiterrorist officers was waiting in reception.

 

What is so startling is that all down the line public officials knew that this was just a guy who wants to see his girl making a weak joke. Yet no one showed a smidgeon of common sense or found the force of character to stop the legal machinery

  The security guard at Robin Hood came across the offending tweet when he did a search of Twitter for mentions of the airport. He classified it as a "non-credible threat," which it most certainly was.

   He was obliged, however, to pass the case onto the police. The police investigated and realised that Paul was not a terrorist. But they had to hand the case onto the CPS. They did not charge him under anti-terrorist legislation, they could not because he was not and is not a terrorist, or for making a hoax call, they could not because he didn't, but instead of dropping the case they turned to an obscure section of the 2003 Communications Act.

   The judge convicted Paul, but that's not the worst of it. Because his employers in Yorkshire see him hauled off by anti-terrorist police, they fire him. He moved to Northern Ireland to be close to his girlfriend and found a job working for a council. Last week, he told his employers that his appeal would be heard this Friday and his name would be in the papers. They heard the words "bomb" and "airport" and fired him too. Because of a joke, he has a criminal record and lost two jobs.

   As I say,

   In Milan Kundera's great anti-communist novel The Joke, the young hero tries to impress a beautiful woman with adolescent bravado. Forgetting what happens to dissenters in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia, he writes on a card to her: "Optimism is the opium of the people. A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!" It's a silly joke. But Communist party officials cannot admit it is a joke once the card is discovered or they will be branded as Trotskyite traitors too. So they make him to do forced labour in the mines.

   The Chambers' case is getting too close to a Kundera plot for comfort. There's a lot of talk on the Net of the need for a mass protest to greet Paul's appeal on Friday.

    Some want to retweet Paul's original message,

   " Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" and dare the CPS to prosecute them.

   Others favour posting Betjeman's

     Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! and asking the police to arrest them.

     Given the behaviour of the CPS, I will be posting Shakespeare's

     The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

 Not that I want to kill all the lawyers, you understand. Only some of them.

Paul's lawyer, David Allen Green, who is turning into a mighty champion of freedom of speech, and should be spared, explains on his blog why the prosecution was so sinister.

 

      The prosecutors of a section 127 offence need to show that an appropriate action occurred (the actus reus, in legal jargon) and that the defendant had a wrongful intention in doing this action (mens rea).

Paul's tweet was not menacing - there is no actus reus. And he had no intention of sending a menacing communication - so there was also no mens rea.

Of course, one could take a different view to mine as to whether actus reus was made out.

But it is misconceived to say that there was any wrongful intention.


However, the CPS regard the section 127 offfence as not needing any intention WHATSOEVER.

The CPS regard section 127 as a "strict liability" offence, which means they do not believe they have to provide any evidence at all of intention before they decide to prosecute someone.

Once the CPS have decided that there is evidence of menacing communication, that is enough for them to launch a prosecution.

And once the CPS prosecutes a strict liability offence then someone gets a criminal record, unless the judge intervenes.

The breadth of what constitutes a communication under section 127 is immense: emails, website content, telephone calls, texts, and so on.

If the CPS decide the content of the communication is "menacing" (or grossly offensive, indecent, or obscene) then you are open to them seeking to give you a criminal record, regardless of your intention.

Just setting out Paul's tweet on a website, as I will do again now, would be enough for them to prosecute:

"Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week... otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"


It matters not to the CPS that I am quoting this with the intention of discussing a legal issue of public concern; my intention is irrelevant.

The CPS position would be that I am just as guilty as Paul; that I deserve to face prosecution; and that I too deserve a criminal record and my life ruined.

The CPS believe that intention is irrelevant with a section 127 offence.

 

Join him on Friday for a nationwide outbreak of defiant tweeting!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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Cripesonfriday
September 20th, 2010
12:09 PM
Just to point out that a twitter account has been set up to help with the appeal and costs of the original trial. http://twitter.com/TwJokeTrialFund which has links to a blog where you can donate. Or just visit the blog directly with this link which has collated everything written about the case.http://tumblr.com/xsqa142m2 . Thank you.

Steve
September 20th, 2010
12:09 PM
Well done Nick. Another excellent piece and another worthy and vital cause.

Carl
September 20th, 2010
12:09 PM
Ok, will join in on Friday, but if I get "done in" by the law, will you lend us a couple of quid?

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About Nick Cohen

Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and author of You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom (Fourth Estate) and What's Left? How The Left Lost Its Way (Harper Perennial). Living With Lies, a collection of his writing for Standpoint, is available as an ebook. 

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