Legal guidelines on social media

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.”

via DPP interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media | Jack of Kent.

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.

One thought on “Legal guidelines on social media”

  1. So these are the proposals by the DPP? Well looks as clear as mud and actually a bit of a pigs ear if you ask me.

    Not saying I normally go about abusing people but it does happen in the heat of the moment. Does this mean in theory that what judges nowadays call ‘mere vulgar abuse’ and not actionable under libel, can constitute a criminal offence instead? We have already seen some cases where litigants have used harassment law to silence free speech which is not actionable under libel because it is true. (on the basis that the individuals who committed wrongs felt ‘alarmed and distress’ about being reminded about it)

    Seems like all the hard work by the Libel Reform Campaign in trying to get rid of speculative libel litigants might be replaced by a new breed of claimant running to the police station every time he is called an idiot. Yes – understood that the guidance talks of high thresholds and common sense but I can imagine this generating huge numbers of people complaining about the use of social media by others. Presumably each case will need to be looked into and no doubt we will see more people being charged with criminal behaviour because the context is ignored or misunderstood.

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