/// Offensive online posts to escape prosecution if writers apologise, say new guidelines
Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said a “high threshold” had to be overcome to take social media users to court over their online activities.
He said the guidelines, which have been finalised after a three-month consultation, sought to address the “potential chilling effect” that might arise from high numbers of court cases for posting offensive comments on the web.
The changes come after the conviction of Paul Chambers, an accountant, in 2010 for joking on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire.
His conviction for sending a “menacing” tweet drew widespread condemnation and was eventually quashed on appeal in the High Court in July last year.
Under the guidelines prosecutors must recognise the right to “freedom of expression” and only proceed with a prosecution when a communication is “more than offensive, shocking or disturbing, even if distasteful or painful to those subjected to it”.
Prosecutions were “unlikely” when the author of the message had “expressed genuine remorse”, the guidelines said.
A case would also be unlikely to get to court if the suspect had taken “swift and effective action … to remove the communication”, they added.
Messages that were not intended for a wide audience – such as tweets by someone with a small number of followers on the micro-blogging site Twitter – were also unlikely to lead to prosecution, they went on.
Mr Starmer said: “Millions of communications are sent via social media every day, and prosecutors must be equipped to deal appropriately and consistently with cases arising from the growing use of these new ways of communicating.
“When I published the interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving social media, I aimed to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law.
“Encouragingly, the public consultation showed there is wide support for the overall approach set out in the guidelines, which state there should be a high threshold for prosecution in cases involving communications which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.”
Revisions to the interim guidelines, published in December, included specifiying that prosecutors should consider whether messages were aggravated by references to race, religion or other minorities, and whether they breached existing rules to counter harrassment or stalking.
The Telegraph – David Barrett