Teenager arrested over sick joke about Glasgow bin lorry crash

Chortle is reporting that a 19 year old man has been arrested by Sunderland police after handing himself in following complaints regarding a joke posted to his Twitter account:

“So a bin lorry has crashed into 100 people in Glasgow eh, probably the most trash its ever picked up in one day that.”

The tweet was apparently deleted very shortly after it was posted.

Northumbria Police say that the man has been arrested on suspicion of making a malicious communication, and he has been bailed pending further inquiries.

It should be noted that CPS charging guidelines on the charging of social media posts require that a high evidential threshold must be met before determining that a post is sufficiently “grossly offensive” to warrant a charge being made. Further, section 40 of those guidelines is very clear on the role of banter and distasteful jokes as an element of free speech:

  1. Context is important and prosecutors should have regard to the fact that the context in which interactive social media dialogue takes place is quite different to the context in which other communications take place. Access is ubiquitous and instantaneous. Banter, jokes and offensive comments are commonplace and often spontaneous. Communications intended for a few may reach millions. As Eady J stated in the civil case of Smith v ADVFN [2008] 1797 (QB) in relation to comments on an internet bulletin board:

    “… [they are] like contributions to a casual conversation (the analogy sometimes being drawn with people chatting in a bar) which people simply note before moving on; they are often uninhibited, casual and ill thought out; those who participate know this and expect a certain amount of repartee or ‘give and take’.”

  2. Against that background, prosecutors should only proceed with cases under section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 where they are satisfied there is sufficient evidence that the communication in question is more than:
    • Offensive, shocking or disturbing; or
    • Satirical, iconoclastic or rude comment; or
    • The expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.

    If so satisfied, prosecutors should go on to consider whether a prosecution is required in the public interest.

Police charge 2 with section 127 offences over tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez

The news has just broken that CPS have charged Isabella Sorley, 23, from Newcastle, and John Nimmo, 25, from South Shields with an offence under Section 127 of The Communications Act 2003 over tweets sent to Caroline Criado-Perez.

Caroline Criado-Perez became the victim of sustained abuse from various Twitter accounts following her successful campaign to have a women featured on the new design for the £10 note. As result of the abuse she received, Criado-Perez also launched a campaign demanding that Twitter provide a “report abuse” button and provide more support for users who were targetted by trolls or were the subject of twitterstorms. This second campaign resulted in a further campaign of abuse and threats. It is unclear from today’s news whether the 2 charged today were involved in either of these campaigns of abuse.

The CPS and police also investigated another user who had sent abuse and threats to Criado-Perez, but concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge. Another further user is still being investigated by police, and may yet be charged.

Labour MP Stella Creasy was also the recipient of “offensive” messages from yet another user under investigation, however the CPS concluded that “although there was sufficient evidence that an offence had been committed under section 127 of the Communications Act, it would not be in the public interest to prosecute”

More information here.

Dragged Out of Bed in Handcuffs – Criminal Trolling?

17 year old Reese Messer was arrested at 2:45am on 31st July 2012 at the guesthouse in Dorset where he lives. The arrest was made on suspicion of an offence under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. He was bailed later that day after being issued with a harassment warning.

The Digital Report has an excellent and exhaustive description of the Twitter posts which led up to Messer’s arrest: http://thedigitalreport.net/2012/07/uk-diver-tom-daley-subjected-to-abuse-by-twitter-user-rileyy_69/

In summary: In the afternoon of July 30th, 17 year old Messer sent a number of offensive Tweets to 18 year old Olympic diver Tom Daley. One of them made reference to Daley’s recently deceased father:

“@TomDaley1994 you let your dad down i hope you know that”

Tom Daley responded to this message by retweeting it with a dismissive comment:

“After giving it my all… you get idiot’s sending me this…RT@Rileyy_69: @TomDaley1994 you let your dad down i hope you know that”

…and that should have been the end of it.

But of course, it wasn’t: Twitter being Twitter, and people being people, @Rileyy_69 was then subject to a deluge of Twitter users criticising, insulting or even threatening him over his Tweets. A hashtag campaign was started, seeking to get the @_Rileyy_69 account removed from Twitter. In hindsight, it might have been a good thing if the account had been suspended at this point. Ultimately, Messer had broken Twitter’s terms of use, and they would have been within their rights to suspend his account.

The pressure resulted in a number of apologising tweets from @Rileyy_69, including:

“@TomDaley1994 please i don’t want to be hated I’m just sorry you didn’t win i was rooting for you pal to do britain all proud just so upset”

Clearly the abuse Messer was receiving was starting to get to him. A sensible person would have simply withdrawn from Twitter for a while at this point, or maybe even joked about it. However this is where Messer begins to look like a very unhappy and unsettled individual. Within a few minutes, he has escalated his posts to making threats of violence against other users, including Tom Daley:

“@tomdaley1994 i’m going to find you and i’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat your a nobody people like you make me sick”

“@_OllyRiley i dont give a shit bruv i’m gonna drown him and i’m gonna shoot you he failed why you suporting him you cunt”

“@_OllyRiley come on then you cunt i’ll stick a knife down your fuckin throat now comeback and stop hiding from me”

Aside: There appears to have been a history of antagonism between @_OllyRiley and Messer which goes back before this incident. Olly Riley has previously trended on Twitter and has over 137,000 followers at the present time. He has seemingly been trolled by Messer in the past.

Later still, there was another apology. Perhaps somebody had messaged Messer to say that his tweets had been reported to the police?

It’s hard to be precisely sure at what point the police became involved in this tragic mess. Messer is clearly a deeply unhappy individual, if one is to judge him by his past online activity (which includes an abusive and threatening youTube video). Clearly his activity on Twitter was seriously agitating him and he appeared to be in need of help. Help which he certainly was not going to get from Twitter.

So yes, I’m pretty comfortable that Police thought they needed to act at this point and did so. Messer was becoming increasingly erratic in his behaviour, and all signs would suggest that he is a pretty unstable and unhappy individual. If only for his own protection, Police had a duty to check on him.

When that became a remit to smash down his door at 2:45am and drag him from his flat in handcuffs, I don’t know. I wasn’t present at the arrest and I know nothing of the background of relations between police and Messer. However I am pleased to report that Messer was issued with a harassment warning, and bailed later that day, with instructions to “return to the police station at a later date whilst Dorset Police investigate other communications on his Twitter account”. This seems like an appropriate and proportionate handling of the incident. If only for the protection of his own mental state, Messer surely needs to tone down his Tweets?

Messer’s Twitter account has a long history of sending abuse (including racial abuse) and threats of violence to other users. It may be that haven’t seen the end of this case. I for one am hoping this doesn’t end in another prosecution.

UPDATE: Various reports today quote Messer’s father saying that Reese Messer suffers from ADHD and refuses to take his medication, and began exhibiting abusive behaviour towards others at the age of 8.

Paul Chambers Wins His Appeal

Paul chambers has won his appeal against conviction in a ruling today from the High Court this morning.

And there’s a little bit of good news in the ruling for Azhar Ahmed too.

“freedom of speech and expression. Satirical, or iconoclastic, or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it should and no doubt will continue at their customary level, quite undiminished by this legislation.”

The full judgement can be read here

Support The Paul Chambers Appeal Now, or Face the Consequences

Last month we heard the news that two High Court Judges have been unable to reach an agreement after months of deliberation over the Paul Chambers High Court appeal. We’re now into the 3rd year since Paul Chambers was arrested and subsequently convicted for sending a “Menacing Communication” contrary to Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, and Paul Chambers remains trapped in a Kafkaesque legal farce which brings British justice into serious disrepute.

“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!!”

I’ve gone into the background of this case before. The case hinges simply on whether Paul Chambers’ tweet could be interpreted as a “menacing”.

…And this is where things get rather tricky, isn’t it? If one ignores the context of Paul Chambers’ Twitter feed at the time, abandons any attempt at critical thinking, and accepts the text of the tweet in isolation at face value, maybe one could see this as “menacing and clearly so” (as the magistrate at the first appeal put it), but as soon as one actually applies any kind of reasoning and qualitative judgement to it, one can see that this isn’t a serious threat at all. This is precisely why Paul Chambers was not charged with sending a bomb threat.

In order to find this Tweet menacing, one has to ignore all context or judgment and abandon any understanding of irony or humour. One can only assume that this is where the High Court is running into difficulties. Applying context is one thing, but applying humour? Can a High Court Judge effectively consider the validity of words published for comic effect?

The comedians are out in force for this case. They’ll be the first to suffer if this legal precedent is allowed to stand.

But who will be next?

The consequences of allowing this judgement to stand are truly terrifying. Section 127 of The Communications Act 2003 outlaws not only “Menacing” but also “Grossly Offensive” messages sent via a public telecommunications network. In the coming weeks we will see the Crown Court Hearing of Azhar Ahmed for using unwelcome political speech on Facebook. Even if you’re not worried about Paul Chambers conviction, a conviction in Azhar Ahmed’s case should fill you with cold dread. If the Azhar Ahmed case results in a conviction, then free political speech on social media has taken a serious beating.

However you feel about Paul Chambers’ tweet, you cannot stand by and allow his conviction to stand. It is perfectly acceptable to find Paul’s Tweet offensive or in poor taste, but the moment one accepts that such writing can be criminal, one exposes oneself to the possibility that any public writing might one day be subject to criminal charges as well. Including yours or mine. I’m thinking back now… how many times have I said or written “I’ll kill that bastard,” or “They should be taken out and shot?” have I ever posted something that somebody might choose to interpret as a direct threat to murder some unsuspecting sibling, or boss or girlfriend in the most violent and messy fashion? Could it be that I too have “threatened” to blow up a public place in “clearly menacing” fashion. I’m almost certain that I’ve written something like that at some point.

Of course, we’re not all going to be charged, but that’s the most worrying aspect of all of this: It’s not just that this kind of speech will become criminal, but that it will be enforced inconsistently, and at the behest of mores and principles of God knows who. Nobody will know when they are about to prosecuted, until they upset some politically powerful figure or an influential and reactionary social group.

The Paul Chambers case now comes down to whether a specially convened tie-breaker convening of 3 High Court Judges can hear Paul Chamber’s appeal and finally overturn his conviction. A conviction which if allowed to stand would set a precedent to limit the freedom of expression of every UK internet user, exposing us all to a capricious and inconsistent criminal court the moment we publish something which somebody else finds unacceptable.

Everybody should support the Paul Chambers Appeal Fund by donating here. If you don’t, you are a fool.

Let’s all stop this nonsense about the word “cunt”

OK, look everybody. I know it is appealing to think that John Graham Kerlen – “Olly Cromwell” has been convicted for using the word “cunt”, and that now the word “cunt” is illegal on Twitter, but that really is NOT the point.

The fact is that Kerlen was found guilty under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 for a communication which included a photograph of a public figure’s house, and was followed by the words, “feel free to post actual shit”

In fact, I’d suggest that if Kerlen had substituted the word “cunt” with the word “councillor”, he would still have been convicted.

“Which councillor lives in a house like this. Answers on a postcard to #bexleycouncil”

But here’s the thing…

Do we really think that Kerlen represented a threat? If he had been genuinely harrassing the council, shouldn’t he have been tried subject to the harrassment law under which he was originally arrested? If he had been genuinely encouraging his followers to post faeces through the letterbox of this councillor, shouldn’t he have been tried for inciting criminal damage? Another charge for which he was originally arrested.

Is there the tiniest possibility that the CPS realised that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to secure a conviction on either of these charges, and instead opted for a charge under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 as an easy way to secure a conviction?

If this is the case, then we should be very worried. This means that section 127 is now recognised as an easy way to secure a conviction when you know that an alternative charge would never pass an evidential test.

Policital Blogger Olly Cromwell Found Guilty Under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003

Political Blogger “Olly Cromwell” (real name John Graham Kerlen) of the Bexley area was today found guilty of sending a grossly offensive communication subject to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, at Bexley Magistrate’s Court.

Cromwell posted two tweets which were the subject of today’s prosecution.

Cromwell first posted a photograph of Bexley concillor Melvin Seymour’s home, accompanied by the text:

“Which cunt lives in a house like this. Answers on a postcard to #bexleycouncil”

The tweet was later followed by another tweet:

“It’s silly posting a picture of a house on Twitter without an address, that will come later. Please feel free to post actual shit”

It appears to have been the prosecution’s assertion that Cromwell was encouraging his followers to post faeces through the letterbox of the address in the photograph.

Cromwell himself posted the full details of the prosecution disclosure and the witness statement on this blog here http://www.youve-been-cromwelled.org/?p=3064

Cromwell had previously been charged with harrassment of Bexley Concillors over his blog. It appears that these charges never appeared in court. http://www.youve-been-cromwelled.org/?p=2211 This latest case appears to a continuation of legal attempts to silence or moderate Cromwell’s online activities.

Cromwell had also posted a blog post in May 2011 “The Bitter and Twisted Guided Tour – Tour of Cuntsville – Coming Soon!” containing a list of home addresses for various Bexley councillors http://www.youve-been-cromwelled.org/?p=2526

Cromwell appears to style himself in the mould of political bloggers such as Guido Fawkes, which I suppose explains the adopted name. The question in front of the court today was whether Cromwell’s somewhat confrontational style had overstepped the bounds of decency. To quote the defence at today’s hearing, Cromwell would have needed to go “beyond the pale of what is tolerable in our society” in order to be found guilty.

An excellent blog post on the facts of today’s hearing from an eyewitness can be found here. http://bexley-is-bonkers.co.uk/blogs/2012/april.shtml#13pt2

What is striking is that despite the defence requesting for sentencing to be decided to today, the District Judge instead decided to set a sentencing hearing at Bromley Magistrates Court on Wednesday 9th May at 13:30, with a representative of the Probation service present. This raises a question as to whether a custodial sentence may be given. An offence under s127 of the Communication Acts 2003 can lead to a custodial sentence of up to 6 months.

Taken in isolation, Olly Cromwell’s tweets are fairly inoffensive. the question is whether the cumulative effect of Cromwell’s activities is sufficient to give the tweets the requisite offensive or menacing context required by section 127.

An interesting case, to be sure.

Another blog on the hearing can be found here:

British Tourists Detained by US Border Police & Refused Entry to US in Response to Tweets

The Daily Mail reports today that two British tourists were detained overnight, questioned, searched and refused entry to the United States following Tweets which he posted to Twitter a few days before flying to the states.

Leigh Van Bryan, 26 tweeted:

“Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?”

After landing at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on the afternoon of 23rd January, Leigh Van Bryan and his fried Emily Banting were detained and interviewed, after which they were handcuffed and transport to a overnight holding cell where they spent 12 hours before being returned to the airport and put on flight back to the UK.

Leigh Van Bryan was also asked about another Tweet which he had posted on January 16th:

“3 weeks today, we’re totally in LA pissing people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up!”

The tweet is a quote from the TV show “Family Guy”

Officials also search the pair’s luggage (the Daily Mail report that this was a search for spades and shovels), and performed a full body search on Leigh Van Bryan.

They have been told that they must now apply to the US Embassy for visas before flying to the US again.

The Daily Mail also have a photograph of the first page of Department of Homeland Security paperwork detailing their detention, interview and refusal of entry to the US. The paperwork focusses on the content of the tweets.

This raises one very interesting question: how did Leigh Van Bryan’s tweets come to the attention of the Department of Homeland Security? Were they reported by somebody who followed / saw Leigh Van Bryan’s timeline, or is DHS/NSA actively mining the Twitter timeline for phrases such as “Destroy America”

The chilling effects of this case are obvious. Should it transpire that this incident occurred as a result of DHS/NSA mining Twitter, that is a serious cause for concern for every Twitter user.

The DHS has made the following statement:

“Based on information provided by the LAX Port Authority Infoline – a suspicious activity tipline – CBP conducted a secondary interview of two subjects presenting for entry into the United States. Information gathered during this interview revealed that both individuals were inadmissible to the United States and were returned to their country of residence.

CBP strives to treat all travelers with respect and in a professional manner, while maintaining the focus of our mission to protect all citizens and visitors in the United States. CBP denies entry to thousands of individuals each year on grounds of inadmissibility, some of which include: improper travel documents, prohibited activities or intent, traveling under the Visa Waiver Program without qualifying for participation in that program, smuggling of contraband or prohibited goods, criminal activity or history, immigration violations such as prior overstay, attempting to gain entry with fraudulent documents or posing as an imposter, and national security concerns, among others.

We recognize that there is an important balance to strike between securing our borders while facilitating the high volume of legitimate trade and travel that crosses our borders every day, and we strive to achieve that balance and show the world that the United States is a welcoming nation.”

Also reported in The New York Times. An interesting paragraph from their article is quoted here:

“The Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies have recently taken steps to improve their monitoring of social media. The Federal Bureau of Investigation said in a document released this month that it was seeking help from developers on an application to scan and scrape information from a variety of public sites and from government terrorism data.”

The story has also been reported on ABC News in The Sun and The Mirror

High Court Date for “Twitter Joke Trial” Appeal – 10th November 2011

David Allen Green has announced on his News Statesman blog today that the continuation of “Twitter Joke Trial” saga now has a new date for our diaries. Paul Chambers’ appeal against conviction in the High Court will take place on 10th November 2011.

At at time when we are seeing numerous convictions for social media posts made during the English Riots, it is important to make a clear distinction between those cases and the Chambers case:

1] No immediate police action or public disruption.

The riot cases currently being seen in our courts often feature immediate police action (arrests, etc), and the threat of possible violent consequences arising from those posts. In contrast, the tweets of Paul Chambers were not taken seriously by either Robin Hood Airport security, or the police who investigated his posts. It was not until days after he made his posts that Paul Chambers was arrested. There were no consequences to the operation or security of Robin Hood Airport.

2] Language & Tone

Many of those charged under either the Communications Act or the Serious Crimes act following the riots, were posting at a time when rioting was taking place, and police may have believed that these posts constituted a genuine threat public order. Paul Chambers’ posts are unequivocal in their jokey tone, and nobody who saw them (including investigating police and security) regarded them as anything other than a joke.

I, amongst many others, am hoping for a swift overturning of Paul Chambers’ conviction in the interest of protecting everybody’s civil liberties, and in the spirit of our society which values our freedom of speech.

Twitter Joke Trial – Some Basic Facts

This article was originally published on the Invent Partners website.

A quick guide to the “Twitter Joke Trial”

The Paul Chambers “Twitter Joke Trial” story as it has become known, is a complex and difficult one for people to get their heads around. There are several important nuances to this case which are at the very core of the judgement and the subsequent appeals.

Amongst other things, there is wide use in the press of terms such as “bomb threat” “threaten” and “hoax”. These are inaccurate and misleading.

For this reason, I’ve compiled this simple brief guide for those unfamiliar with the case.

1] Was this a “bomb threat” or “hoax”?

No. There is specific legislation to deal with bomb threats: section 51 of the Criminal Law Act.

Paul Chambers was not charged under this act because:

a] He posted his tweet for only his twitter friends (or “followers”) to view
b] He had not sent the the tweet directly to the airport
c] The initial investigating officer at the airport stated

“There is no evidence at this stage that this is anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see”

d] The CPS identified that this was not a bomb threat, and prosecuting it as such would not result in a conviction.

Paul Chambers was charged under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 – this law was designed to protect members of the public from receiving abusive and/or “menacing” messages.

2] Did Paul Chambers directly threaten the airport?

No. His tweet was not sent to the airport. It was posted on his “timeline” – he would have expected only his “followers” to read it.

If you think of Paul’s “tweet” as similar to a “status” update on Facebook, or a conversation with friends in a public place, this probably helps as a metaphor.

3] How was this “tweet” discovered?

A manager at Robin Hood Airport was searching for mentions of Robin Hood airport using the Twitter service, days after the tweet was posted. It is a feature of Twitter that users’ tweets are by default searchable by anybody. As a result, the tweet was found by this manager, who had no choice but to report it for investigation by airport security.

4] Did anybody else complain or report this “tweet”


5] What was the police response?

The investigating officer at the airport regarded it as a joke, and stated as much in his report. However, he passed it on to the police. They in turn categorised it as “non credible” – which is the lowest category of threat level which can be assigned. However, they arrested him 3 days later and charged him under the 1977 “Bomb Threat” act referenced above.

However the CPS realised that no such charge was going to result in a conviction, and decided to charge Chambers under the little used section 127 of the Commmunications Act 2003.

6] What was the EXACT text of Paul Chambers’ 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!!”

Note the exclamation marks. You may choose to censor this for print or broadcast elsewhere, but please don’t lose those exclamation marks! They set the tone of the message.

7] The in depth stuff:

These articles from Paul Chambers’ solicitor go into great detail on the case:



Lots of links, and the trial fund campaign can be found here


8] Want to get REALLY deep?

Here’s some serious philosophical discussion: