The guidelines were set out by Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC. They resulted from the prosecutions over offensive posts which had a “chilling effect on free speech”, while the QC claimed that loads of people on both Twitter and Facebook were accused of criminal activity every day.
The guidelines specify that some users might avoid trial if they are sorry for criminal comments made while drunk. The rules in question come after a number of controversial cases. The most famous was the May 2010 conviction of Paul Chambers. This guy was wise enough to joke on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire.
Chambers’ conviction for posting a “menacing” tweet caused global outrage and was eventually quashed on appeal in the High Court. Keir Starmer explained that the Crown Prosecution Service had now dealt with over 50 cases relating to potentially criminal comments published on the Internet. But he also pointed out that there was so far very little case law set by senior judges that could guide whicht trials should go ahead.
Starmer has now set out new interim CPS guidelines which are supposed to strike the right balance between freedom of expression online and upholding criminal law. They also aim at raising the threshold against which people should be prosecuted: for instance, the social media messages carrying credible threats of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment, or those which breach court orders will be prosecuted.
To be prosecuted, a post must now be considered more offensive, shocking or disturbing, rather than just a joke or rudeness, according to the guidelines. In addition, if a message is promptly deleted, blocked by ISPs or site operators, or written by a minor, then prosecution is less likely to take place.
The guidelines in question take effect immediately and are currently subject to a consultation process. But they are only guidelines, not a strict law.