However, several recent cases on Twitter have seen certain users fall foul of the law.
It would seem that many people believe they can hide behind a cloak of anonymity if they broadcast their potentially criminal views online.
Not so fast…
The courts have taken a different view, however, and five high-profile cases have proved that spreading lies, untruths, or malicious gossip on social media will not go unpunished.
1) Paul Chambers
When Paul Chambers sent his girlfriend a tweet to convey his frustration at a delayed flight, he could never have imagined that it would land him in the High Court; however, that is exactly what happened. Frustrated at the delay, Chambers commented:
“Crap. Looks like Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing this airport sky high!”
Chambers forgot about the tweet until the police paid him a visit at his place of work and charged him with offences under the Communications Act. He was later found guilty by magistrates, and he was fined a total of £1,000. A subsequent appeal at crown court failed, so Chambers took his case to the high court and won.
His plight attracted high-profile support from a number of public figures, such as Al Murray and the MP, Louise Mensch. Although his comments were eventually deemed to be harmless, he will definitely think twice about the content of his future tweets.
2) Sally Bercow
Following the BBC documentary that wrongly implied Lord McAlpine was at the heart of a child sex abuse case, Sally Bercow made the mistake of weighing in with innuendo to her 57,000 Twitter followers. As the furore over Newsnight’s botched report was erupting on social media, she tweeted:
“Why is Lord McAlpine Trending? *innocent face*”.
This flippant comment was taken by Lord McAlpine as a sarcastic declaration of his guilt, and he immediately demanded £50,000 in damages and an apology. Despite attempts at negotiating an out-of-court settlement, it seems that this case will reach the courts, and that could change the way communication laws are interpreted forever.
3) Diane Abbott
The MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington proved that even those at the higher echelons of the political system can get into serious trouble by making controversial comments on social media forums. During a lively Twitter debate about the Stephen Lawrence case, Abbott said:
“White people love playing ‘divide & rule’. We should not play their game.”
Of course, Abbott’s comments were the talk of the newspapers the very next day, and she faced condemnation from people of all political persuasions. Despite her initial claims that her comments were not racist, and that they were taken out of context, it took pressure from within her own party to persuade Abbott to make a contrite apology. The case showed the incredible power that social media now has in the political sphere.
4) Tom Daley
A 17-year-old Twitter user ended up in hot water during the 2012 Olympic Games after posting a menacing tweet about diver, Tom Daley.
After Daley’s failure to win a medal in the 10-metre synchronised event, the boy sent the Plymouth-based diver a message declaring that Daley’s father (who died due to cancer in 2011) had been let down by the failure. Of course, Daley was upset, and he forwarded the message to his own followers. Some free-speech campaigners may say that arresting the boy was heavy-handed, but it sent a warning that the police are not afraid to tackle online trolling by using the 2003 Communications Act.
5) Ryan Giggs
Attempts by Ryan Giggs to cover up an extra-marital affair brought the term ‘super-injunction’ into the wider public domain for the first time. The Twitter rumour-mill went into overdrive when dozens of people openly named the Manchester United star as the man at the centre of the UK’s most high-profile gagging order.
Technically speaking, these users were in contempt of court, and they all faced prison sentences had they been taken to task. This case raised serious questions about the legal issues that surround social media, as it seemed preposterous that newspapers couldn’t report on issues that were being freely discussed in cyberspace.
These very high-profile cases suggest that the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the courts are taking criminal comments on the Internet very seriously. However, they need to walk the fine line between protecting freedom of speech and upholding the law. There is surely no place for libellous, racist, or threatening behaviour on social media, but simply finding a person’s comments tasteless or disagreeable should not be the basis for censure or censorship.
Written by Alex Johnson, a blogger on Technology in Education and Internet Security.