In UK, Twitter, Facebook rants land some in jail

Associated Press Modified: November 15, 2012 at 6:46 am •  Published: November 15, 2012

LONDON (AP) — One teenager made offensive comments about a murdered child on Twitter. Another young man wrote on Facebook that British soldiers should "go to hell." A third posted a picture of a burning paper poppy, symbol of remembrance of war dead.

All were arrested, two convicted, and one jailed — and they're not the only ones. In Britain, hundreds of people are prosecuted each year for posts, tweets, texts and emails deemed menacing, indecent, offensive or obscene, and the number is growing as our online lives expand.

Lawyers say the mounting tally shows the problems of a legal system trying to regulate 21st century communications with 20th century laws. Civil libertarians say it is a threat to free speech in an age when the Internet gives everyone the power to be heard around the world.

"Fifty years ago someone would have made a really offensive comment in a public space and it would have been heard by relatively few people," said Mike Harris of free-speech group Index on Censorship. "Now someone posts a picture of a burning poppy on Facebook and potentially hundreds of thousands of people can see it.

"People take it upon themselves to report this offensive material to police, and suddenly you've got the criminalization of offensive speech."

Figures obtained by The Associated Press through a freedom of information request show a steadily rising tally of prosecutions in Britain for electronic communications — phone calls, emails and social media posts — that are "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character — from 1,263 in 2009 to 1,843 in 2011. The number of convictions grew from 873 in 2009 to 1,286 last year.

Behind the figures are people — mostly young, many teenagers — who find that a glib online remark can have life-altering consequences.

No one knows this better than Paul Chambers, who in January 2010, worried that snow would stop him catching a flight to visit his girlfriend, tweeted: "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your (expletive) together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high."

A week later, anti-terrorist police showed up at the office where he worked as a financial supervisor.

Chambers was arrested, questioned for eight hours, charged, tried, convicted and fined. He lost his job, amassed thousands of pounds (dollars) in legal costs and was, he says, "essentially unemployable" because of his criminal record.

But Chambers, now 28, was lucky. His case garnered attention online, generating its own hashtag — (hash)twitterjoketrial — and bringing high-profile Twitter users, including actor and comedian Stephen Fry, to his defense.

In July, two and half years after Chambers' arrest, the High Court overturned his conviction. Justice Igor Judge said in his judgment that the law should not prevent "satirical or iconoclastic or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, banter or humor, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it."

But the cases are coming thick and fast. Last month, 19-year-old Matthew Woods was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail for making offensive tweets about a missing 5-year-old girl, April Jones.

The same month Azhar Ahmed, 20, was sentenced to 240 hours of community service for writing on Facebook that soldiers "should die and go to hell" after six British troops were killed in Afghanistan. Ahmed had quickly deleted the post, which he said was written in anger, but was convicted anyway.

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