The answers to that is YES – Twitter can land you in trouble with the law. As evidenced by several court cases, lots of press coverage and a recent BBC News Magazine article by Brian Wheeler Twitter users: A guide to the law, tweeting without thinking could land you with a criminal record or having to pay substantial damages.
According to research for law firm Wiggin, 46% of 18 to 24 year olds are unaware they can be sued for defamation if they tweet an unsubstantiated rumour about someone.
So, before you send that tweet, bear in mind the following…
In November, Conservative peer Lord McAlpine announced his intention to seek libel damages from Twitter users over incorrect and defamatory insinuations linking him to child sex abuse. The Conservative peer had already received a substantial damages settlement from the BBC over a Newsnight report falsely suggesting he was a paedophile. Newsnight did not name him in its report, but it prompted a guessing game on Twitter which resulted in the peer being falsely accused of sex offences.
The law concerning Twitter is clear – if you make a defamatory allegation about someone you can be sued for libel. It is the same as publishing a false and damaging report in a newspaper.
Technology law expert Luke Scanlon, of Pinsent Masons says that people assumed they could say anything they liked about public figures because the public figure could not sue everybody. However, Lord McAlpine dropped threatened legal action against Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers and instructed his lawyers to concentrate their efforts on seeking £50,000 in damages from Sally Bercow, in what is expected to be the first High Court Twitter libel trial.
A tweet is potentially libellous in England and Wales if it damages someone’s reputation “in the estimation of right thinking members of society”. It can do this by exposing them to “hatred, ridicule or contempt”. It is a civil offence, so you won’t be jailed but you could end up with a large damages bill. The rules also apply to re-tweets.
Paul Chambers was living in Doncaster, when he joked on Twitter that he would blow up nearby Robin Hood Airport when it closed after heavy snow – potentially disrupting his travel plans.
He tweeted: “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!!”
In May 2010 he was found guilty under the 2003 Communications Act but the conviction was quashed on appeal by the High Court, amid a high profile campaign to defend free speech on Twitter.
It can come down to the judgement of police and prosecutors. Aggravating factors, such as racism and prejudice against religion, disability and sexual orientation will lead to increased sentences.
New CPS guidelines state “As a general rule, threats which are not credible should not be prosecuted, unless they form part of a campaign of harassment specifically targeting an individual within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.”
Sean Duffy from Reading was jailed for 18 weeks in September 2011 for making “grossly offensive” comments under the Malicious Communications Act 1988. Duffy admitted posting images on Facebook and YouTube mocking the deaths of four children, including 15-year-old Natasha MacBryde who committed suicide.
Trolling is a phenomenon that has swept across websites in recent years. Online forums, Facebook pages and newspaper comment forms are bombarded with insults, provocations or threats. Trolling is a broad term, taking in everything from a cheeky provocation to violent threats. It is usually carried out by young adult males for amusement, boredom and revenge, says Prof Mark Griffiths, of the International Gaming Research Unit. Supporters argue it’s about humour, mischief and freedom of speech. But for many, the ferocity and personal nature of the abuse verges on hate speech.
The right to be rude about someone in print is protected in English law. “Vulgar abuse” is not considered defamatory. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights also protects free speech. Duffy was prosecuted under a piece of legislation originally designed to combat hate mail and nuisance phone calls.
The decision to arrest and charge someone for making abusive comments is a subjective one to some extent. It depends on the police or prosecutor’s interpretation of the law.
Injunctions and Super-injunctions
There have been several high profile examples of injunctions and super-injunctions. Individuals can take out injunctions to prevent publication of potentially damaging material. A super-injunction prevents the media from reporting even the existence of an injunction.
They were first used to protect the safety of notorious criminals when they were released from jail. But in recent years they have been taken out by celebrities to stop the tabloid press exposing their private life.
Judges have to be convinced a newspaper is ready to publish highly intimate information and that the applicant, however famous, has a right to privacy. Critics argue they have a devastating impact on free speech.
Media organisations or social media users potentially face prosecution for contempt of court if they report the identity of a person who has obtained a super-injunction.
Since the controversy over Ryan Giggs (where 75,000 people named him on Twitter as a footballer at centre of an injunction row) and other well-known figures taking out super-injunctions, many have now been lifted. The government has also instructed judges to “time-limit” new ones. But a number of privacy orders are still thought to be in force.
Apart from the areas above that could land you in hot water, Tweeting in relation to the following, to name a few, could also get you into trouble: breaking a court order, contempt of court, reporting sex offences, encouraging riots, menacing communications and abusive messages.
So, think before you tweet!