The Day Free Speech Died In The U.K.

1984 instruction manualAfter Paul Chambers was arrested for making a joke about about blowing up an Airport on Twitter, I wrote about how Facebooks privacy changes (and those of other networks) can help to criminalize all of us by unnecessarily exposing what we think and what we say.

Reports are now coming in that Paul Chambers has been found guilty, received a 1,000 pound fine ($1500) and of course, now has a criminal record.

The ramifications of Chambers being found guilty may be far broader than the U.K. authorities looking like heavy handed, over-reactionist, fools and the effects a criminal record will have on the life of Chambers.

Paul’s story has been documented on the blog Jack of Kent and charges leveled against Chambers make for some eyebrow raising material:

26-year-old Balby man has been charged with sending, by a public communications network, a
message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character

Chambers was not actually charged with perpetrating a bomb hoax.

Instead he was charged with violating (UK Law) section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, under which it appears that people can now be charged with simply sending a message that is considered to be offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.

Improper use of public electronic communications network

(1)            A person is guilty of an offence if he—

(a)           sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or

(b)           causes any such message or matter to be so sent.

(2)           A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—

(a)           sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false,

(b)           causes such a message to be sent; or

(c)           persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.

(3)           A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.

I’m not a lawyer, I’ll leave that up to far smarter and more knowledgeable people than myself, but what it boils down to is the following:

Without actually causing harm or disruption and without any need to prove intent, or that anybody even received the message (case law), people in the UK can now be prosecuted for making a joke or statement that somebody finds offensive (and reports) on any form of telecommunications media (anywhere on the internet, blogs, message boards, social networks, forums, cell phones, text messages, telephones, etc…).

As I said I’m not a lawyer so don’t take my word for the implications of Chambers being found guilty, instead check out the excellent write up on The Lawyer.

Barring a successful appeal, this could well be the point at which freedom of speech dies in the U.K.