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Twitter will more than likely, probably have you arrested or lose you your job

April 16, 2012

Twitter is becoming more and more like running round Liverpool city centre in the middle of the day with a burning torch kicking people in the knackers as they pass and smashing shop windows while threatening to kidnap the Queen and make her watch all her speeches of the past 60 years one after the other on repeat – backwards. And what I mean by that, is you’re likely to get arrested or lose your job. I say this because two things have come to my attention in the last 24 hours: Grace Dent threatening to have somebody sacked (ish) after he tweeted at her calling her an “ugly abhorrent horse” (I must admit, I giggled); and the case of a bloke calling a local councillor a c*nt a while back is hurtling towards court.

I won’t bore you with the details – though they are both fascinating cases (click the links) – but this is a worrying sign for all those who quite like freedom of speech. Yes, it’s not nice to call somebody a C-word but is it really a criminal offence? And yes, you should not call a “celebrity” an “ugly, abhorrent horse” but it is quite amusing and no doubt similar to the kind of schtick you should be able to take if you are going to appear on Have I Got News For You (the show Dent was on to warrant the insult).

The whole Twitter legal minefield is still fairly new – it seems to hark back to the #TwitterJokeTrial when Paul Chambers threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport if his flight to see his sweetheart was cancelled. The summer riots saw Twitter and Facebook come under further legal scrutiny and the latest litigious spark is various Tweeters’ racist abuse.

There is obviously a difference between calling Grace Dent a horse and some of the disgusting racism Twitter can act as a vehicle for or inciting a riot for that matter. But, as Victoria Coren wrote in a brilliant piece about Liam Stacey, the man who tweeted racial abuse about Fabrice Muamba, nobody was quite sure what Stacey said as it was not published by the media, nobody was particularly sure what offence he was being charged with, yet everybody celebrated he had been jailed. Such occasions should have Tweeters and lawyers closely examining the European Convention of Human Right’s safeguard of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression does not just protect speech with which the majority agrees with. It also protects opinion whether you agree with it or not. Dent is obviously not a horse but if she decided to sue the tweeter could defend himself against a defamation claim with an honest comment defence. Because it is his opinion, though he might find it difficult defence but that’s a longer story.

All in all, as much as I love Twitter Storms and I really do, when the law is blurred or becomes malleable because of said Storms and is swayed my public opinion this really is a concern. It will be interesting to see how the Malicious Communications Act will adapt – because it has to adapt – to the ever-growing presence of Twitter in our lives. I, for one, would be keen to see freedom of expression  protected not blocked.

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