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

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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.

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