Tweeting On the Wrong Side of the Law: Part 1

In the opening gambit to a series of blogs on Twitter use and its relationship with the Law, we provide a brief overview of recent high-profile Twitter legal controversies, before assessing how teenagers are using twitter to their cost.

Our Prime Minister once opined live on national radio that ‘too many tweets might make a t***.’ While that’s a fairly blunt and highly subjective assertion, the notion certainly holds true that too many tweets might land you in legal hot water. However, I’m sure this less catchy sentiment, had it been similarly spluttered on air, would not have been so headline friendly.

Although the ‘Twittersphere’ has never been free from the eyes of civil and criminal authorities, the legal implications of tweeting are still a nascent phenomenon. A ‘menacing electronic communication’ as defined by the 2003 Communications Act can lead to prosecution for the author. Meanwhile, a ‘grossly offensive’ tweet that contravenes The Malicious Communications Act 1988 – legislation originally designed to combat hate mail and nuisance phone calls – can also end in incrimination. In a number of published guidelines, the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS) has attempted to bridge the gap between existing legislative provision and dangerous social trends based on technological developments. The warnings are there for all to see, and the nature of offences engaged by twitter villains thus far has been wide-ranging.

Contempt of Court and Libel

On 27 November 2013 at London’s High Court, security guard James Baines was given a 14-month suspended prison sentence for tweeting images of a man purporting to be Jon Venables – the killer of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. Venables has been subject of a 2001 worldwide injunction prohibiting the publication of any information in regards to his new identity. Baines is close to the Venables family, but that did not stop a finding of a flagrant contempt of court. Baines uploaded the picture on the 20th anniversary of the crime, and the Attorney General referred the instance to Court in consideration of the interests of the wider public. By tweeting the picture, Baines’ Counsel admitted that he had taken the law into his own hands.

Only last month, a reckless tweeting spree (albeit consisting of a question followed by a retweet) courtesy of actor and QI panellist Alan Davies, resulted in a £15 000+ sized hole in his pocket. To almost 450 000 followers, Davies insinuated that Lord McAlpine was the subject of a BBC Newsnight investigation into alleged child sex abuse by a senior Conservative during the Thatcher years. Davies settled the libel action only days after a settlement took place between McAlpine and Sally Bercow. The Speaker of the House of Common’s spouse, had posted this defamatory tweet:

“Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”

Davies used the chastening exercise to, in his own words this time, ‘warn others of the dangers of retweeting.’

Teen Trouble

Outside the court, a tweet sent in jest has undoubtedly cost many their jobs, and in some quarters, given rise to notoriety in the press. Paris Brown is the former (and nation’s first) youth and crime commissioner – you may recall – who was tearfully forced to step down after tweets considered to be racist and homophobic, were uncovered by the Mail on Sunday. The tweets in question were posted when Brown was aged between 14 and 16, before she landed the job. Ultimately, after an interview under caution, Kent police attested to the CPS that the case did not pass the evidential threshold for prosecution, and no further action was taken.

Another teen that went from hero to zero (in my eyes anyway) due to retrospective twitter perusal was a certain ‘Swansea ball boy’. Having been kicked by the aptly named Chelsea midfielder Eden Hazard for not relinquishing the ball quickly enough towards the end of a Semi-Final, the player was dismissed and Chelsea exited the League Cup in a historic day for South Wales. To the majority, Hazard’s behaviour appeared inexcusable, but that was until the ball boy’s identity, and therefore his twitter account, was discovered. Tweets sent prior to the game revealed the kid’s self-anointed raison d’être at the Liberty Stadium: #needed #for #timewasting. Charlie Morgan invited unnecessary indignation in providing evidence of pre-meditated behaviour.

Of course, the omnipresent danger is not limited to twitter but all social media channels. A famous example of this is the Clifford Chance Trainee Solicitor and ‘city lad’, who inadvertently found himself the subject of a disciplinary hearing. He was filmed for a YouTube video by an Oxford student newspaper and proceeded, in a drunken stupor, to declare his love for a job he summed up as ‘f***ing people over for money’.

Whist these cases demonstrate individuals who have played fire with their futures due to inappropriate use of social media, one has to wonder how many have been denied opportunities in the first place due to ill-advised material posted on public profiles. There appears a disparity between young and old in how Media Law and Criminal Law informs approaches to social media. Research undertaken by Law firm Wiggin found that 46% of 18- to 24-year-olds are unaware they can be sued for defamation if they tweet an unsubstantiated rumour about someone. This compares to 17% of over-65s. Don’t say we didn’t warn you…

Stay tuned for future posts advising you how to stay on the right side of the law with social media: Keyboard Warriors & Free Speech, More on Contempt and Injunctions, and the impact of the Defamation Act 2013.