Paul Chambers and the #TwitterJokeTrial

In case you haven’t been following this extraordinary excursion by the British legal system, here’s a quick update:

Paul Chambers sent a light-hearted (but superficially violent) tweet when inclement conditions threatened to prevent him flying to a rendezvous with his young lady. The tweet was eventually taken at face value by someone with law enforcement responsibilities, kicking off a train of events which has cost untold time, effort and money to bring legal proceedings for something which should not have occupied the legal system for any time at all.

Paul Chambers’ appeal case is being heard today at Doncaster Crown Court. Aptly enough, you can follow the proceedings via tweets from interested parties here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/sep/24/twitter-joke-trial (Just remember not to say anything remotely threatening, however facetiously, if you feel moved to tweet your own view of proceedings).

For more analysis of the oddities of this case, have a look at the blog posts where Matt Flaherty has set out 10 reasons why District Judge Bennett’s ruling in the original case was either wrong, ill-informed or simply perverse. Matt’s blog prompted the following thought on my part:

I wonder if there’s an argument to be made, on appeal, that the judge simply acted “ultra vires” in deciding that the Paul Chambers’ original tweet was “menacing in context”? After all, he is a law-court judge, not an airport security officer. He might argue that what matters is not his profession but his ability to form a judgement. I wonder how he would fare if he had to swap jobs with either of the following two people:

1 – the airport security officer who assessed the comment as non-threatening, but felt he had to pass it on to law enforcement for procedural form’s sake;

2 – the police officer who assessed the comment as non-threatening.

To my mind, they are the experts in a position to make the definitive assessment as to whether or not the message was “threatening in context” – not the judge – and both of them concluded that it was not.

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