"Warning: may contain humour"

Posted by Helen on Fri 12 Nov 2010 at 14:04

Opinion varies as to the nature of the ignorance which resulted in Judge Davies' decision yesterday to reject the appeal of Paul J Chambers. Some think the key issue is one of humour:

The action against Paul Chambers has rightly been dubbed the "Twitter Joke Trial". Not just because it was a joke of a trial - though certainly not a funny one - or because it centres on what everyone involved acknowledges to have been a joke. What has been on trial is the possibility of humour itself, the right of a freeborn Englishman to be facetious as and when he feels like it, about any subject whatsoever. Heresy Corner - With the Conviction of Paul Chambers, it is now illegal to be English)

Some disagree, arguing that what's at stake is the freedom to vent one's frustrations:

Let's get this straight from the start. It was not a joke. It was not a prank. It was not a hoax. It was a howl of impotent rage borne of frustration. Quite frankly, if a howl of impotent rage gets you a criminal record, then the writers on the Daily Mail must be shitting themselves. (Army of Dave - Something Important Happened Here)

Others percieve a gulf of understanding between tech users and legislators - one which will be familiar to anyone who's campaigned on digital rights:

There is a disconnect, rapidly widening, between the speed of technological innovation and the laws set up to govern what goes on in cyberspace. Worse, there's an enormous cultural gulf between the general public and the judiciary, whose job it is to interpret and apply those laws. Ignorant of the nuances of the internet and mistrustful of the milieu from which social media types emerge, our judges are simply not qualified to determine the appropriateness or effect of a jokey tweet. (Telegraph: The law must learn to keep up woth technology)

The question of freedom of speech online has been doubly in the news this week, with the parallel case of Tory councillor Gareth Compton, who posted a joke tweet suggesting that the world would be a better place without columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in it. It was an offensive joke with upsetting sexist and racist overtones, and the Tory party were arguably justified in suspending him from office - public figures are always required to be more careful with their language than private citizens. But this wasn't just a party matter: police arrested Compton under the Communications Act 2003.

Whether or not a joke about blowing up an airport, or stoning women in Iran is offensive is a question of individual sensibilities. Saying something insulting or upsetting is not illegal. In both cases the involvement of the criminal justice system in a bad taste joke is absurd; it sets a ridiculous and extremely dangerous precedent.

People on the internet, by and large fans of being able to insult and disagree with one another vociferously, have rallied around Compton, and especially Chambers, with a good-humoured but sharply political show of support. A petition showing up the absurdity of the words of Judge Davies's ruling has nearly 2000 signatories stating that "I do not consider @pauljchambers' tweet to be 'obviously menacing'". Blogposts a-plenty have sprung up to condemn the ruling, and a donation fund has been started to help Chambers pay his legal costs.

There are already a dozen witty demonstrations highlighting the absurdity of this ruling. You can now attach a "may be a joke" twibbon to your twitter icon, to help the CPS avoid future misunderstandings. The #IAmSpartacus hashtag, in which twitter users helpfully replicate Chamber's tweet in the spirit of "you can't arrest us all", is currently collecting a hundred tweets a minute, although it'll probably die down in a couple of days. The @flippantcomment feed re-tweets "menacing" messages in a similar vein. And a lot of people like the idea of getting together to pay the fine in 50p cheques, to cause CPS maximum inconvenience. The internet, it seems, has more of a sense of humour than Judge Davies.

But this isn't particularly funny, when you think about it. How did this ruling serve the public interest? How can the CPS justify a case against Chambers, but not against the TSG officer who struck Ian Tomlinson before his death?

The phenomenon of anti-terrorism laws being used to oppress the citizens they are designed to protect is not new. Lord Hoffman's words in 2004 are just as relevant today:

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these.

This article can be found online at the Police State UK website at the following bookmarkable URL:

This article is copyright 2010 Helen - please ask for permission to republish or translate.