Director of Public Prosecutions takes relaxed approach on prosecuting social media users over jokes and banter

New guidelines on prosecutions involving Twitter and Facebook messages have been announced  – and are not as strict as expected.

Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer says that grossly offensive, obscene, indecent or false messages will be subject to a ‘high threshold’ before legal action is taken.

He said: "In many cases a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest".

When interim guidelines were published last year, there were fears they would herald a hard line approach to ‘everyday’ communications. This followed several controversial prosecutions.

But after further consultation, Mr Starmer is to take a relaxed approach to banter, jokes and offensive messages.

His decision not to prosecute semi-professional footballer Daniel Thomas, who was arrested for sending a homophobic tweet about Olympic diver Tom Daley last year, was an indication of his thinking.

Starmer today said senders will only be prosecuted if their messages go further than:

  • Being offensive, shocking or disturbing; or
  • Satirical, iconoclastic or rude comment; or
  • Expressing unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.

But he is promising a tough approach to communications that make credible threats of violence to a person, or damage to property.

Death threats may be treated under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. And communications which specifically target an individual or individuals, may be treated as harassment or stalking under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

He is also recommending a hard line against messagers who breach court orders. Cases like the one, last year, when nine people were ordered to compensate a woman raped by footballer Ched Evans after naming her in Tweets, will be treated the same under the new guidelines.

Starmer said: “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."

Controversial prosecutions so far have included student Stacey, from Pontypridd, South Wales, who tweeted abusive messages when footballer Fabric Muamba collapsed with a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup match for Bolton against Tottenham.

And Paul Chambers, 28, was convicted in May 2010 after tweeting that he would blow up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire when it closed because of heavy snow.

But the conviction was overturned when the high court ruled the tweet was clearly not menacing.

It is unlikely either of these senders would be prosecuted under the guidelines announced today.

Cleland Thom is a consultant on media law

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