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Free Speech is Dead (or it will be when I’ve bombed it)

Posted by Pat | Posted in Observations / Life | Posted on 18-11-2010

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Before I start – I want to admit I have a hard time putting my exact feelings on this subject into writing. Not because I’m not feeling ‘free’ enough to do so, but because I’m a computer networks graduate and at no point in my education did I get better than a ‘C’ for English, so bear with me.

I’ve had a chance to simmer after a week which would make any rational person question what is happening in this country. Paul Chambers was arrested and charged with an obsurd crime he didn’t commit using legislation not fit for purpose and lost his appeal because of a judge and Crown Prosecution Service completely out of touch.

This is not new news, I understand that – Paul’s problem started in January – you know the one, where he went and told the ‘Crap!’ joke about Robin Hood Airport getting their ‘Shit together’ or this mild mannered and jocular trainee accountant’s going to somehow summon the forces of evil to blow the place ‘Sky High!!’ with two exclamation marks no less.

I refer, your honour, to the use of Twitter. And, your honour, it would be useful if you understood Twitter.

Admittedly I’ve been posting on Twitter for about a year but it’s only in the last couple of months I guess I have ‘fully’ participated. By that, I mean it started feeling good to post freely and honestly and without too much fear of retribution. That is the way of Twitter – once you have found your tone and some good followers / followees it is a freeing and enjoyable place to share news, participate in micro debates and, yes, have a joke.

Many long term Tweeters have developed a sense of Twitter humour which is fairly unique I believe because of the limitation of how much you can write. 140 characters, your honour. You have 140 characters in which to sum up your judgement in this case. Try it. Then try it and make it sound like a joke. It may end up reading, “I have just rejected the appeal of Paul Chambers who has clearly and obviously threatened an old couple indirectly with his use of Twitter.” – 139 characters. Unfortunately, though that does sound like a joke, it is true. See how the lines get blurred? This is where context comes in. If, like Paul’s 600 followers of the time, you have spent some time understanding his way with words, you would instantly know, without a doubt that his joke was not in any way a threat to anyone.

Twitter I think is unique in this case. I say that because I don’t think Paul would have posted his ‘offending’ tweet on say, his blog, without qualifying the joke first or allowing the context to be plainly visible. You cannot physically do this with Twitter, if you look at the one tweet as a ‘message’ as defined by the very law which was used to charge him:

 

127Improper use of public electronic communications network E+W+S+N.I.

(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;

 

The ‘message’ in Paul’s case is that single tweet. Not the ‘message’ of everything he’s tweeted before and since. Imagine if Paul was writing a book, and decided to publish each sentence in 140 character bursts, on Twitter, as he was writing it. His joke may well have ended up looking exactly the same – would he have been given a criminal record then? I fear it unlikely, but that is a complete contradiction in itself because it will have meant the CPS had looked at and understood the context. Why hadn’t they done the same here then? Do they lack a sense of humour?

If only Judge Jacqueline Davies had actually used Twitter. Unfortunately for her, she probably wouldn’t experience it like the rest of us if she started now, clearly, but everyone likes to follow a ‘sleb or two – there must be a retired Judge whose work she admires out there somewhere in the Twittosphere. If she could actually tap her brain into the 21st century and engage a little with the future of communication, she may suddenly realise what she did.

Paul’s tweet has been ripped apart so many times, I’ve tried to avoid doing it myself. But my summary, your honour, is that it was a bad joke, plain and simple, from someone with a usually good sense of humour. It wasn’t aimed at the airport, it was aimed at his followers, who may or may not have even read it.

What really annoys me about the way this happened is that the police were fairly nonchalant about the ‘offense’ when he was originally arrested even saying they knew it was ‘just a joke’. He wasn’t even arrested under the same charge that he ended up in court for. It is apparently the CPS who grew this from nothing and a ridiculous judgement from a judge who upheld the conviction last week which turned this into a piece of national news and set a dangerous precident for those who choose to speak freely online.

Oh and the police apparently ‘stole’ his iphone/laptop as there’s no rumblings of ever returning them nearly a year later.

The Twittosphere has come together in various ways to raise money and support for Paul. The Twitter Joke Trial Fund was last heard to be upwards of £5k strong and pledges from celebrities to pay legal fees have been noted – though I think Paul is too modest to accept in reality. The ‘#iamspartacus’ campaign which spread virally was brilliant, and clever. If I were Paul at least I’d feel humbled that the very platform which got him into trouble is propping him up the whole way.

The funny thing about Twitter is that it makes things personal. I’ve had a few tweets here and there with Paul over the last few months, and I think every single one has been jokey in tone (aside from perhaps one or two non-public ‘direct messages’). You get to know people.  Explaining the whole thing whilst forcing my girlfriend to refresh the tweets while I was driving, when the verdict was being announced, I found myself getting angry and ranting all the way to our destination. My girlfriend, clearly not being as involved as I’d become (merely having some communication with the guy) probably thought I’d gone mental.  Social connections make us feel good, having a joke makes us feel good. It reinforces our human nature. Twitter therefore has to be a good force.

Of course there are responsibilities which come with free speech – stories of people being fired for posting about their work/boss on Facebook seem ever present – one has to be careful. In doing so, it’s easy to wrap things into humour which is funny in itself because of the dichotomy of interpretation. Paul was unfortunately standing on that line – where one person would hear a comedian, say, Frankie Boyle do one of his jokes about paedophiles and laugh, and another person would call OFCOM and make a complaint. I have to admit, if I heard one joke from Frankie Boyle and had never seen any of his other gags or the way he tells them, they probably wouldn’t be half as funny – and clearly the offduty airport manager who called the police in Paul’s case felt exactly that.

Where was I going with this? Oh crap I’ve rambled now. The main point I wanted to get across is that Twitter is brilliant because of the 140 character limit, whilst also being dangerous because of the 140 character limit. What you choose to stuff in there may not be all it seems without at least consuming a few tweets either side of a questionable one.

And I feel awful for the bloke himself – criminal record and now struggling to find work because of it. My hope in this case is he takes it to the next stage – the High Court I believe – and possibly to Europe? The people immediately around him are what seems to be the best support going – his girlfriend (who arguably caused this whole thing, ha.), his family, friends, lawyer and twitter folk. In fact, aside from some pathetic attention seeking journalists, I think most of the modern world is behind him.

Feeling powerless, I have offered to help in a small way and have been having early discussions with @aconcertforpaul to see if we can bring the event to the masses via a live stream which I’ll hopefully set up and produce. I’ve talked with the Performing Rights Society and finally understood the licensing implications of such a thing and am as keen as ever for it to happen and can ‘donate’ in my own way by sorting all that out. Either way, follow @aconcertforpaul for updates.

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