A man who tweeted a joke threat to “blow up” Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire has lost his attempt to overturn the judgment – but now the appeal will be considered all over again.
Senior judges have ordered a fresh hearing of the original case against Paul Chambers from Doncaster, who sent the tweet late at night when the airport was closed by snow in January 2010.
Unlike tweets, whose essence is to be brief and to the point, the increasingly notorious legal action is now heading for its third unresolved year. No date has been set for the new trial and protests against alleged overreaction have multiplied, with high-profile support from celebrity tweeters such as Stephen Fry.
Chambers, who is now 27, lost his job as an accountant in Doncaster following an avalanche of publicity when he was convicted in May last year of sending “an electronic communication of a menacing character”, contrary to provisions of the 2003 Communications Act. He was fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs after crown court judge Jacqueline Davies, sitting with two magistrates, called the tweet “clearly menacing” with airport staff sufficiently concerned to report it to police.
Chambers had been tweeting with his girlfriend, whom he wanted to visit in Northern Ireland, and one of the sequence of tweets said: “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit … otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” In the way of Twitter, this was shared with about 600 regular followers of his messages and came to the attention of airport security staff.
A two-judge divisional court of the high court ordered the new trial after Chambers appealed earlier this year to have his conviction overturned. An earlier appeal was also dismissed and Chambers’ solicitor, David Allen Green of Preiskel and Co, said that a split divisional court was highly unusual, adding to the legal interest – as well as longevity – of the case.
The original trial heard that there had never been serious concern that the tweet was anything more than a prank, but in the context of national alerts about terrorism, it was not considered funny. Ben Emmerson QC, appearing for Chambers before Lord Justice Gross and Mr Justice Irwin in February, said that the conviction had proved the opposite of a deterrent.
Around 4,000 people re-tweeted the message in protest and support gigs included a fundraising event hosted by the comedian Al Murray who described the affair as “like something out of Monty Python“.
Emmerson told the court: “One has to inject common sense to avoid the law ending up looking silly. Was this a steamroller to crack a very small nut?”
The Doncaster hearing played a separate role in Twitter’s own story, by opening up many court hearings to the instant messaging service.
In spite of disapproving looks from the bench, proceedings were tweeted more or less as they happened, and a high court ruling subsequently put the issue at the discretion of judges, many of whom have allowed it.
[Robin Hood airport by vic_206 / Flickr]