Social media

Online 'trolls' have right to be offensive, campaigners say

Anti-censorship groups attack prosecutions of 'trolls' who put up unpleasant messages online

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2012, 4:19am

For many, online "trolls" are the scourge of the internet, but rights campaigners in Britain are increasingly leaping to their defence amid a string of criminal trials over tweets and Facebook posts.

British prosecutors are to revamp their approach to cases involving social media following an outcry over freedom of speech, after "offensive" online comments, from bad jokes to homophobic insults, resulted in arrests and even imprisonment.

A 19-year-old man was given three months in prison on Monday after posting crude jokes on Facebook about a missing five-year-old, April Jones thought to have been murdered in Wales.

Matthew Woods's comments prompted an angry mob to gather at his home, and he was initially arrested "for his own safety".

But many contrasted his jail time with a community sentence order handed the same day to a TV comedian, Justin Lee Collins, who was found guilty of a campaign of abuse against his girlfriend, in which social media was not involved.

Adam Wagner, a blogger on legal issues, said: "People post sick, offensive, horrible and stupid things on social media all of the time. As a society we should try to make people nicer, cleverer and less offensive. But is sending people to prison, along with violent rapists and thugs, the right way to do it?"

Woods' case comes after that of Azhar Ahmed, 19, sentenced to community service for declaring on Facebook that "all soldiers should die and go to hell".

Padraig Reidy, news editor at the campaign group Index on Censorship, said: "I think we have seen some very clearly unjust prosecutions."

Still, Reidy added: "We need to find a balance. People can be harassed or menaced quite horribly on social media."

Finance worker Paul Chambers, 28, has become a poster boy for the freedom-of-speech argument since he tweeted in 2010: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" His tweet led to his arrest and a criminal conviction for sending a menacing message, in one of the first cases of its kind.

Chambers fought a legal battle lasting more than two years to successfully overturn the conviction, winning huge online support in what became known as the "Twitter joke trial".

Reidy said of the case: "The important thing with the eventual ruling is that the court found people do have a right to be hyperbolic, insulting and maybe offensive online. That in itself should not constitute a crime."

Courts have dealt with concerted campaigns of online harassment, while fresh legal ground was broken in cases of incitement, contempt of court and libel on social media. But it was the arrests over offensive social media posts that prompted a rethink by prosecutors.

On September 20, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) threw out the case against a man who posted a homophobic tweet about British diver Tom Daley.

The director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said: "If the fundamental right to free speech is to be respected, the threshold for criminal prosecution has to be a high one and a prosecution has to be in the public interest."