Airport ‘terror’ tweeter in new court challenge

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A man found guilty of sending a menacing Twitter message had celebrity backing as he renewed his challenge against conviction.

Paul Chambers, 28, was flanked by broadcaster Stephen Fry and comedian Al Murray as three judges, headed by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, started a review of his case at the High Court yesterday.

The accountant was fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs at Doncaster Magistrates’ Court in May 2010 after being convicted of sending “a message of a menacing character”, contrary to provisions of the 2003 Communications Act,

He said he sent the tweet to his 600 followers in a moment of frustration after Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire was closed by snow in January 2010, and never thought anyone would take his “silly joke” seriously.

It read: “Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s**t together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”

But, in November 2010, Crown Court judge Jacqueline Davies, sitting with two magistrates, dismissed his appeal, saying that the electronic communication was “clearly menacing” and that airport staff were sufficiently concerned to report it.

Opening a new bid to overturn his conviction and sentence, John Cooper QC told Lord Judge, Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Griffith Williams that the wrong legal tests had been applied.

He said that the message was sent on a timeline on the Twitter facility to Mr Chambers’s followers and not as a randomly-searched for communication, and the relevant section of the Act was never intended to deal with messages to the “world at large”.

The circumstances of the offence of a “menacing character” had a higher legal threshold than that of a “threatening character”.

To constitute a menace the threat must be of such a nature so that the mind of an “ordinary person of normal stability and courage” might be influenced.

Also, the person sending the message must intend to threaten the person to whom the message was sent – in other words, it was a crime of specific intent.

Mr Chambers’s right to freedom of speech under the European Convention was engaged, he told the court.

Turning from the law to technology, he said that the 2003 Act did not “bite” as the social media platform involved was “a content service” and therefore outside the definition of both public electronic communication service and public electronic network.

Comedian Murray was one of Mr Chambers’ supporters at the High Court. He said: “He made a passing remark to his followers, to his friends, to people who joined in with his way of looking at the world.

“The funniest thing is hearing it (the tweet) read out in court by a QC in his wig. Even when it’s said deadpan by a QC it’s funny, it’s obviously a joke,” he added.

Mr Cooper said the tweet was certainly not sent in the context of terrorism and it was wrong for the Crown Court to make such an association.

He said: “If that be the case, and I don’t mean to be flippant, John Betjeman would be concerned when he said ‘Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough’, or Shakespeare when he said ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers’.”

Lord Judge commented: “That was a good joke in 1600 and it is still a good joke now.”

Mr Cooper said: “And it was a joke, my Lord.”

He told the judges that Twitter was invented in 2006 so was not known to Parliament at the time of the 2003 Act.

Robert Smith QC, for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), said that, on any view, Mr Chambers, a man of previous good character, was “very foolish” to do what he did.

The question was, by whose standards and by what members of society would such a message be viewed as a joke.

The judges reserved their decision to a later unspecified date.