On my way back to SA yesterday I read an interesting front page story in the New York Times. Titled, ‘Rand on Twitter Turns Briton Into a Criminal, and a Cause’. It is the account of how a certain Paul Chambers (26), thwarted by a snowstorm at his local airport that grounded his flight whilst en route to meet someone he had met online (there’s another whole story!), ranted on twitter to his 690 followers: “You’ve got a week to get your (expletive) together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”. To cut a long story short, Chamber’s rant cost him $4 800 in costs and fines. During the court proceedings Judge Davies lectured the courtroom about the impropriety of sending Twitter updates during the case. Supporters of Chambers filled the courtroom and were using the case to Tweet and Blog their opinions during proceedings.
The argument is that using such language in the context of Twitter cannot be considered as threatening. “The authorities don’t seem to understand the way Twitter works” said Padraig Reidy, news editor of Index on Censorship, a London magazine that covers free-speech issues. The pro-Chambers supporters have used the case to advance their cause for freedom of speech arguing that we all have said things on social media that could conceivably constitute a criminal act. A #IAmSpartacus homepage – a reference to the Kirk Douglas movie in which rebel slaves in ancient Rome refuse to betray their leader, Spartacus, confusing their enemy by all claiming to be Spartacus, has been created to rally the troops around the cause. Tweets have appeared such as,”I am Paul Chambers. I’m going to blow up the entire universe”. Others have threatened to blow-up random things such as Downing Street, the town of Doncaster, the White House, Basing Hockey Club and balloons! One person asked, “if I put lol (laugh out loud) at the end of every tweet, will that protect me from prosecution?”.
The law cannot keep pace with the changes that are occurring in the social technology arena. In essence the laws are being ‘rewritten’ and there seem to be strong arguments on both sides of the coin in this particular case. Judge Davies said in her judgement, “Anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorists threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences (of his twitter message)”. Others argue that Twitter is characterized by rapid-fire, off-the-cuff, often satirical exchanges and that we need to understand that people will say (tweet) such things in this context.
The part that I could relate to in this story was when Chambers was arrested, police asked him if he had any weapons in his car. He replied that he had some golf clubs in the boot (trunk). Apparently his humour wasn’t well received by the police involved!