Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Social networking sites can be a faulty platform for humour. Stripped of tone, posts can be misread. Twitter is particularly troublesome: the character limit and openness of the tweets combine to mislead readers. Many British airports were disrupted due to cold weather in 2009, so Paul Chambers decided to publish the tweet:
Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!
Though the airport’s off-duty manager did not believe it was a “credible threat”, it was reported, and Mr Chambers was arrested by anti-terror police at his workplace. After two High Court appeals, Mr Chambers’ original fine was overturned.
To be honest, if you wear a Help for Heroes t-shirt you deserve to be beheaded.
After pleading guilty at Hendon Magistrates’ Court to the crime of sending a ‘malicious electronic message’, Ms Hassan was ordered to carry out 250 hours of unpaid work. Chairman of the Bench Nigel Orton said:
The tragic events in Woolwich that day have created a context which made this tweet appear extreme. It had a huge impact and clearly caused offence and distress. We accept you didn’t intend to cause harm and you felt it was a joke.
Despite the court recognising that Ms Hassan intended the message to be a joke about the t-shirts’ design, malice is seemingly independent of intent. Moreover, the “offence and distress” appears to allude to the numerous menacing responses that Ms Hassan received, including threats to rape her and to kill her by an arson attack on her home. It is strange that, upon complaining about these threats, the police’s first response was to arrest Ms Hassan rather than investigate her concerns. As in the Matthew Woods case, the threats against Ms Hassan appear to have been used as evidence against her, rather than seen as crimes.
Neither does Ms Hassan’s communication fit the template of incitement. The Serious Crime Act 2007 replaced the common law crime of incitement with the statutory offence of ‘encouraging or assisting’ crime. According to the Act’s explanatory notes, the offences are for “intentionally encouraging or assisting crime and encouraging or assisting crime believing an offence, or one or more offences, will be committed”. Since Ms Hassan had no intention or belief that similar crimes would be committed, as the murder of Dmr Rigby was notable by its unique barbarity in modern London, it cannot be considered incitement.
Whilst there are concerns about how these laws are applied, since direct threats do not appear to constitute ‘malicious electronic messages’, the question is should merely ‘insulting’ or ‘offensive’ messages on any platform be crimes. Despite the rancid taste of Ms Hassan’s joke, citizens should have the freedom to publish their opinions in whatever formulations they choose, without state intervention into conversations.