04 January 2016

Online abuse — it's no joke

Amber Melville-Brown
Partner | US

A man who posted messages on Facebook threatening Tory MP Charlotte Leslie has been sentenced to eight weeks in prison. The MP voted in favour of British airstrikes in Syria but was then subjected to threats which even the defendant's counsel in mitigation described as 'despicable' and as going 'far beyond any sort of legitimate protest'. Craig Wallace, 23 – who calls himself Muhammad Mujahid Islam having converted to Islam while in prison for attempted robbery – subjected the MP to vile and misogynistic threats, not repeated in full here, but which included that he would 'smash her windows then drop a bomb on her house' while she slept in order to show her 'what it's like to murder innocents'.  Wallace told the court that he had been 'venting his anger' and had not been taking his medication for anti-psychotic behaviour. He has sent a letter of apology to the MP and pleaded guilty to sending threatening communications. Should an apology have been enough? Is the prison sentence a step too far in a society that values free speech? Does the fact that the speech being voiced was shouted over the megaphone of social media make a difference? With the prevalence of communications via social media, Parliament has established a number of means by which perpetrators can feel the force of the law. Legislation includes the Communications Act 2003, the Malicious Communications Act 1998 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997. And on 20 June 2013, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer — now himself MP for Holborn and St. Pancras — issued guidance on sentencing in respect of online crime committed via social media (see our blog here). These laws enable the courts to punish individual aggressors, but the penalties for which they provide should also act as a deterrent to those who look not to exercise free speech, but rather to use the might of the internet as a weapon for evil rather than tool for good. There is of course, a difference between a threat to injure or kill, and a joke. And the courts are working out where the boundaries lie. In 2009, 28 year old Paul Chambers vented his anger at the closure of Robin Hood airport due to bad weather, joking on Twitter,  'You've got a week and a bit to get your sh*t together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high'. He was arrested by anti-terror police officers, charged under the Communications Act with sending an offensive message, found guilty and reportedly lost his job as a result. A serious set of consequences for a silly moment. He appealed but lost, the judge finding that he must have known that the menace in this threat might be taken seriously. But amid a twitter storm of huge celebrity and public outcry and a further appeal, his conviction was ultimately overturned. Interpreting the Act, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge said that 'a message which does not create fear or apprehension in those to whom it is communicated, or who may reasonably be expected to see it, falls outside this provision'. Wallace's Facebook threats are a horse of a different colour altogether from Chamber's tongue in cheek tweet. But social media is the perfect vehicle for both. In our blog 'The police 'think digital' to fight cybercrime' we referred to the revelation in the report of the National Police Chief's Counsel that there has been a significant increase in complaints to the police regarding activities on social media. Some may argue that a prison sentence for online anger venting is too harsh; and that those in the public eye — and especially MPs making very serious decisions for the country — should take abuse on the chin. But others will assert that where online activity goes beyond funny, it needs to be taken seriously; and that if we are to curtail anti-social online excesses, turning to the full force of the law, rather than turning the other cheek, is the only viable option.

Category: Blog