Sunday, November 14, 2010


If I was on Twitter, I might have heard about this sooner. But I'm not, so I just came across it now.

Last January 6, a young man named Paul Chambers was irritated when Robin Hood airport outside Doncaster, England, was closed by a winter storm. He had plans to fly out of that airport to see a woman he had gotten to know online. Frustrated at the potential cancellation of his plans, he tweeted this to his followers:
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!
The message was discovered five days later by an airport duty manager who was browsing the Web.
The manager forwarded the offending tweet on to his station manager, and - even though the threat was deemed "non-credible" - it was passed on to police.
On January 13, Chambers was arrested. Even though police determined that the comment was a joke "for only his close friends to see" according to his police case file, he was charged with "sending a menacing electronic communication" - that is, of making a threat. In May, he was convicted. This, again, despite the undisputed facts that it was deemed a "joke" and "non-credible" as a "threat" and the supposed "threat" was never sent to the supposed target, which would not have even known about it but for pure chance.

This past Thursday, his appeal was rejected. Not only rejected, his punishment was increased: He'd originally been fined a total of £1000; on Thursday the appeals judge added an additional £2600 for "prosecution costs."

The danger such a decision presents to freedom of speech online needs or at least should need no explanation, not when you can be arrested, convicted, and punished for what everyone involved agrees was a joke.

Well, okay, no, not everyone: The appeals judge - who "icily lectured the courtroom about the impropriety of sending Twitter updates during the case," claimed that "any ordinary person would have been menaced by the tweet." Well, if that's true then "any ordinary person" is a goddam flaming idiot. I mean, come on: threatening to blow up an airport if it is not open? Saying in essence that "I want that airport open and if it's not open in a week I'll keep it closed?" That's like making a "threat" along the lines of "You'd better feed me, or else I'll go on a diet" or "If you don't stop laughing, I'm going to tickle you." Who in their right mind could take that seriously as a threat? In point of fact, no one and yes I am fully aware of what I am suggesting about the appeals judge.

Chambers has suffered more than a fine as a result of this:
He was fired from his job as an administrative and financial supervisor at a car-parts company. He moved to Northern Ireland ... and was fired from a subsequent job after his employers discovered his criminal record. He is now unemployed.
So he is out of a job as well as some £3600 (about $5800) for failing to have sufficiently absorbed the "watch what you say lest you irritate some official or another" mantra, the "don't make waves or even ripples" meme. Star Simpson could tell him something about that.

On the upside, almost immediately upon the loss of the appeal thousands of tweets started appearing under the tag #IAmSpartacus either re-tweeting Chambers' original post or making their own comic "threats" against a variety of targets. AP said it counted 5000 in just two hours.

As I noted at the top, I'm not on Twitter, so I can't participate directly in the campaign of solidarity, but I'll say here that unless within a week and a bit Robin Hood airport adopts a policy of free beer and pretzels, I'll send a team of overweight middle-aged guys to do the full monty on the main concourse after which they will pee on the benches.
A spokeswoman for South Yorkshire Police, which originally arrested Chambers, scoffed and said "no" when asked if police planned on arresting any of Chambers' online fans.

But she refused to answer when asked why the thousands of jokey threats to blow Robin Hood Airport "sky high" would be treated any differently than Chambers' original tweet, which resulted in his arrest.
Of course she couldn't answer because there is no coherent response available. Right now, count on officialdom to hunker down and try to wait it out. Because even if the furor disappears, this case as a precedent, as a source of support for future, harsher limitations, will not. It will still be there, waiting to be whipped out.
Police and prosecutors "seem to have completely ignored the notion of context, which is a very dangerous thing," said Padraig Reidy of the London-based Index on Censorship. "If he genuinely intended to blow up the airport, he wouldn't have tweeted it. It's obviously a joke."
Reidy also said that
"The verdict demonstrates that the UK's legal system has little respect for free expression, and has no understanding of how people communicate in the 21st Century."
I suspect it's more likely true that they do understand - and the prospect of being unable to control such technology-driven intellectual anarchy, the prospect of not being able to confine communication within "acceptable limits," with appropriate "respect for authority," scares the living hell out of them. And that's why cases like this happen: to remind people who's boss.

As a footnote, after the hearing, British actor Stephen Fry renewed his promise to pay Chambers' fine. Good on him.

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