U.K. trial tests whether jokes on Twitter are jokes, or threats

Appeal of fine could decide what critics call a blatant infringement on free speech

Leading British comedians, civil libertarians and advocates of commen sense in the evaluation of what actually constitutes a threat are backing the appeal of a man fined £1,000 for a Tweet threatening to blow up a snowbound airport, on the grounds that citizens should not be punished just because their legal system can't take a joke.

In January, 2010, then-25-year-old Paul Chambers, looking forward to travelling from his hometown of Doncaster to Northern Ireland to visit a woman he'd just met, worried that his local Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire was snowed in.

"Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed," he Tweeted to about 600 followers. "You've got a week and a bit to get your s*** together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

Chambers was worried he would miss a flight to meet a woman who uses the Twitter name @crazycolours and to whom he is now engaged. He joked with her via Twitter direct-message about hijacking a plane, if necessary, so as not to miss their visit.

His bomb-the-airport comment was in his public feed, however, which is where the trouble started.

An off-duty airport employee (who was not a follower of Chambers but did see Tweets related to the airport) saw the Tweet and reported it.

The same thing happened to Chambers that happens to Americans who make nervous jokes about smuggling drugs or carrying bombs when they go through security at the airport: he was arrested on the assumption even the most obviously facetious statements about security could interrupt the security theater performance designed to make everyone else feel safer.

Police should read for context, not keywords

Chambers' Twitter feed is as far from an angry or ideologically twisted vent as it's possible to get while still using enough words to allow those who aren't already a part of the conversation to misinterpret them for their own ends.

Most of Chambers' Tweets are responses to comments by others or light-hearted, almost content-free updates. His is exactly the kind of stream-of-consciousness social networking promoters once advocated as addenda to the kind of discussions users have in the real world.

Most are responses to admirers that answer questions but provide no context on the question or comment to which they respond.

The rest are self-involved party-boy comments of the kind you'd expect of a (now) 27-year-old with no crushing responsibilities who finds himself pinched between official paranoia about both terrorism and Twitter.

"Court done. Beer Now." He tweeted today at noon London time.

It should have been obvious to anyone scanning even a page of previous Tweets the threat to blow up the airport had more to do with pointless angst than potential violence.

Even responses to friends asking about today's court session show as much empathy for the judges involved in a high-pressure case as for himself:

Defenders call Tweet "obviously facetious;" judge sees it as "obviously" menacing

The High-Court appeal session this morning finished with no conclusion from the trio of judges appointed to examine the original conviction from May, 2010 and the rejection of Chambers' appeal by a lower court in November, 2010.

The conviction itself was a threat – to the right of free speech and the right of anyone, professional comedian or not, to make acerbic jokes about things that annoy them, comedian Al Murry told The Guardian.

"The conviction is crazy, there is no other way of putting it," Murray said. "It is like saying 'oh God, I could murder the boss', that's all there is to it. The law is being made to look absurd."

Nevertheless "anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences," according to Judge Jacqueline Davies in rejecting Chambers' first appeal, in November.

Despite protestations by Chambers and his fans, the Tweet was "menacing in its content and obviously so," Davies ruled. "It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed."

The three-judge appeals panel seemed more open to Chambers arguments this time around, but no clearly enough to indicate which way they'd rule, according to the U.K. papers. A ruling is likely in about a month, according to Chambers.

"It is society that will rule on whether that joke is acceptable and not a criminal code," Chambers' lawyer, John Cooper told the court in his latest appeal. "There is a right enshrined for people to make jokes that others may regard as offensive."

Cooper cited other "threatening" jokes, including the line "first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," from Shakespeare's Henry VI.

"That was a good joke in 1600, and it's a good joke now," one judge quipped.

"And it was a joke, My Lord," Cooper replied. "This was no ultimatum of a serious kind to the airport. The last thing this particular tweeter wanted was for the airport to be closed."

Chambers, an accountant, lost his job as a financial manager following his 2010 arrest. He subsequently moved to Northern Ireland to pursue his relationship with @crazycolours.

Apparently not all Chambers' comments are misconstrued as violent or inappropriate; at least, not by everyone.

He now lives with @crazycolours outside Belfast; the two are engaged to be married. Prospects for the two are, apparently, bright except for one ominous comment in her profile summary that could lead to more problems of the same type if authorities in Northern Ireland are as keenly perceptive as those in Doncaster:

"My *what is acceptable to tweet* filter is usually on the fritz," she wrote. "Sorry about that."

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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