A man found guilty of sending a supposedly “menacing tweet” about a Yorkshire airport was the victim of a legal “steamroller” that threatened to make the law look silly, the High Court has been told.
Paul Chambers, 27, said he thought that no one would ever have taken seriously his joking threat to blow Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire “sky high”.
Accountant Chambers said he sent the tweet to his 600 “followers” in a moment of frustration after the airport was closed by snow in January 2010.
However he was convicted at Doncaster Magistrates’ Court of sending “a message of a menacing character”, contrary to provisions of the Communications Act, fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs.
Yesterday he asked two High Court judges to overturn a later decision in November 2010 to uphold his conviction and sentence – which pushed the costs order against him up to £2,600.
The message he had tweeted 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!”
In the November hearing, Judge Jacqueline Davies said the message was “clearly menacing” and that airport staff were sufficiently concerned to report it.
Speaking at London’s High Court yesterday, Ben Emmerson QC, appearing for Chambers, argued the Crown Court had erred in law – and in common sense.
Mr Emmerson suggested it was hardly likely that anyone planning to blow up an airport would post their intentions on Twitter.
He told Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Irwin that convictions and sentences were normally meant to have a deterrent effect, but in the Chambers’ case they had the opposite effect.
His conviction caused resentment and triggered an “I am Spartacus!” campaign in which 4,000 people tweeted the Chambers message across Twitter – “none of whom were arrested”, said Mr Emmerson.
He added: “One has to inject common sense to avoid the law ending up looking silly.”
He told the judges the questions for them were “whether this prosecution-conviction-sentence was a steam roller to crack a very small nut and whether it was a disproportionate response”.
Mr Emmerson argued that the tweet was not menacing, but just a joke. Chambers also lacked the necessary “mens rea”, or intent, to be “menacing”.
He added that Chambers’ prosecution and conviction could not be justified.
They were disproportionate and breached his right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
But Robert Smith QC, for the Crown Prosecution Service disagreed. The Crown Court decision was justified by the facts, he said.
The judges reserved their judgment and said it would be handed down at a future date.
Among those sitting at the back of the court supporting Chambers were Pub Landlord comic Al Murray and Father Ted writer Graham Linehan. A goodwill message was also sent to Chambers by comedian Steve Coogan,