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Offensive communications: Twitter and the law

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In a week when yet another Twitter user has faced the police for their abusive comments, many have called on the authorities to clarify exactly what is and is not allowed to be posted online.

On Tuesday evening Dorset police moved in on a 17-year-old Twitter user, Rileyy69, who was staying in a guest house in Weymouth, Dorset.

Forty-eight hours earlier the youth had posted offensive messages on the social networking site directed at Team GB synchronised diver Tom Daley.

Mr Daley, 18, had just finished fourth in the final of the mens' synchronised diving, narrowly missing out on a medal. Rileyy69 was less than impressed and used the social networking site to post comments aimed at Mr Daley, stating that his performance was inadequate and that he had let down his father, who died of a brain tumour last year.

Mr Daley responded by reposting the offensive remark and left it to his many followers to send supportive and abusive replies to the 17-year-old 'Twitter troll'.

After receiving complaints from a number of Twitter users, Dorset police moved in to arrest Rileyy69 under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. The Act allows offenders who post communications which are deemed indecent or grossly offensive to be hit with a fine of up to £2,500.

What happened to free speech?

The arrest of the young Twitter user was welcomed by some but condemned by many who believe that free speech should prevail in all but the most exceptional of circumstances. Critics argue that arresting this teenager for making offensive comments is really a waste of police time and serves no great benefit to society or to the victim, in this case Mr Daley.

Robert Sharp represents writers' association English PEN.

"Tom Daley showed a lot of class in responding to the trolls," Mr Sharp told the Telegraph.

"He re-tweeted the offensive comments and the Twitter troll received a social humiliation at the hands of Tom's many fans. This kind of punishment is usually better than involving the law," he added.

Drawing the line

However, most Twitter users would agree that there is a line, and this was perhaps best illustrated in March when Swansea University student Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days for an offence under section 4A of the Crime and Disorder Act 1986.

Mr Stacey was out with friends celebrating Wales' win in the Six Nations rugby championship, when he watched live the collapse of Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba in a cup match against Tottenham Hotspur. Mr Muamba suffered a cardiac arrest due to a rare congenital heart condition. Miraculously, medics at the game were able to keep his heart beating manually for 78 minutes whilst he was transferred to the London Chest Hospital, where he made a full recovery.

Mr Stacey responded to the drama by Tweeting a series of racially motivated attacks aimed at Mr Muamba and other black Twitter users. He continued to post comments online throughout the evening, eventually stopping to tell everyone that he was only joking and that other users should not have taken his comments seriously.

However, they were taken very seriously indeed and Mr Stacey was subsequently arrested for making racially abusive comments. At sentencing, the judge in the case said he had no option but to deliver a custodial sentence to Mr Stacey.

Twitter and the law

The police have a variety of tools at their disposal to investigate foul and abusive messages posted online, or via text, email or over the phone. For racially motivated attacks, the Crime and Disorder Act 1986 allows for a fine or a custodial sentence.

For other offensive comments, section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 makes it an offence to improperly use public electronic communications networks and allows for a sentence on summary conviction of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to £5,000.

Sources:

Teenager arrested and bailed after Daley twitter abuse (The Telegraph)

Top banter: Liam Stacey is an idiot. That's punishment enough for his Fabrice Muamba tweets by Tom Chivers (The Telegraph)

1 Comment

Regarding the Liam Stacey case, he did not post any racially abusive tweets to Muamba. Not one. He made a sick joke. It was not racist. It was not posted to Muamba personally.

It was no different to, say, tweets rejoicing at the prospect of Margaret Thatcher's death.
Where are the arrests for that?

He did post some racist comments to other people, but they were in response to anti-Welsh abuse and threats, so he was responding in kind. His responses were quite childish and fairly tame. Actually, very few of them were in any way racist at all.

Again, where were the arrests for the abuse and threats directed at Stacey himself, and his family??

According to the sentencing guidelines, his offence did not come close to a custodial sentence. Nowhere near.
It was a minor offence.

The police will tell you that very little of this stuff ever gets beyond the CPS, but it was high profile, so it went to court.

The judges decided to hand down a custodial sentence. It was way off the scale for this offence.
Many believe that the sentence was politically motivated.

It was criticized by the European Commissioner of Human Rights at the time as "excessive".

I'm not sure what line you think he crossed, by the way.

Even if you think racist insults should be illegal (and I don't), do you really think a bit of name-calling merits a prison sentence of 2 months, especially for a young man who has not committed an offence before and is otherwise of good character? He was on his way to a promising career too.
Is a minor offence on Twitter really deserving of all this??

I'm glad you linked to the Telegraph, but there were other good articles about this in the Guardian, Times and Spectator at the time.

It was/is a hugely controversial case and I think the judges and CPS deserved the criticism.