Of all the things I’ve read in the news this year there is one thing that has frightened me the most. Forget about the usual scare stories about the imminent destruction of the human race or the threat of attack from terrorists. The most worrying thing is clearly the loss of Paul Chambers’ appeal in the so called Twitter Joke Trial.
The first time Chambers was found guilty of sending threatening messages to Robin Hood airport over Twitter I thought it was ridiculous enough. Obviously he said he would appeal and most sane people assumed this madness would be overturned once the case was heard by people that weren’t idiots. Of course this being the current British legal system that was too much to hope for and Paul Chambers’ appeal has failed. He has been ordered to pay a fine (although Stephen Fry has offered to pay these like the gentleman he is) and because of the whole mess has lost his job.
The reason this scares me so is because it sets a legal precedent that disallows us from making jokes and being facetious on the internet. If I say that I would like to punch Jedward in their collective faces will I be arrested from threatening behaviour? Does the fact that I haven’t punched someone since I was 10 or that I am clearly exaggerating for comic effect have no meaning? Internet forums and message boards are filled with people making morally dubious statements that are clearly not to be taken seriously. Until Chambers’ conviction no one thought that anyone would actually take these statements seriously but now we have to consider the fact that they might.
I’m hoping that the mainstream media will take a little more notice of this case after this failed appeal. It seems to me that this could have a detrimental effect on their freedom of speech. If you’ve ever read Charlie Brooker’s columns in the Guardian you’d know that he routinely threatens celebrities and people in the news in a light hearted fashion.
The IAmSpartacus hashtag (where people tweeted Chambers’ offending tweet verbatim) trended on Twitter for most of yesterday. The hope is that this will highlight the ridiculousness of the situation… either that or a few thousand of us Twitter users are in for a rather large fine.
People like me that have grown up with the web and specifically textual communication are overtly aware that subtle meaning can be lost in transmission. Sarcastic comments are taken seriously all over the web but this has taken that phenomenon to the next level. My only solution to this problem is to finish any jokey sentence that could be misconstrued with the universal sign of ‘only kidding’ –
edit. Corrected spelling of Spartacus… how embarrassing.