Lawyer and blogger Jack of Kent has published an interesting article discussing the preliminary guidelines on how prosecutors under English law should approach social media. To my mind, I assume that a prosecution would be appropriate if a tweet, Facebook update or other public posting breaks the law and indeed that seems to be what the guidelines clarify. This is a summary of how that should be assessed:
“Communications sent via social media are capable of amounting to criminal offences and prosecutors should make an initial assessment of the content of the communication and the course of conduct in question so as to distinguish between:
(1) Communications which may constitute credible threats of violence to the person or damage to property.
(2) Communications which specifically target an individual or individuals and which may constitute harassment or stalking within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 or which may constitute other offences, such as blackmail.
(3) Communications which may amount to a breach of a court order. This can include offences under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 or section 5 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992. All such cases should be referred to the Attorney General, and via the Principal Legal Advisor’s team where necessary.
(4) Communications which do not fall into any of the categories above and fall to be considered separately (see below): i.e. those which may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.”
We all have a right to freedom of speech, but that doesn’t mean you can harass, stalk, blackmail, abuse or threaten people on social media. The guidelines discussed by JoK would seek to clarify how prosecutors should approach accusations. Of course, the guidelines do not define what is “reasonable”, what is “grossly offensive”, “indecent”, “obscene”, or even “false”. Remember the man on the Clapham Omnibus, he used to wear a flat cap and a mac, these days, he’s got a hoody and an iPhone.