A tale of two Twitter trials
To be consistently liberal, the Twitterati should defend drunken racists as well as airport jokers.
Two-and-a-half years ago, Paul Chambers, a 26-year-old accountant, was feeling playfully annoyed. A week before he was due to catch a flight to visit his girlfriend, his local airport in Yorkshire had just announced a service suspension due to snow. Quick as the proverbial flash, he crafted a joke and sent it spinning into the Twittersphere: ‘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!’
It is doubtful that many of Chambers’ 600 followers had to attend Accident & Emergency with split sides. Mind you, it is also doubtful that anyone took it for a bona fide, Semtex-in-pants threat to obliterate a provincial airport. Except, that is, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
So it was, after being arrested in January 2010, that Chambers was found guilty the following May of ‘sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003′. Chambers’ ker-razy tweet cost him a £385 fine, £600 in legal costs and earned him a criminal record. And since then he has been trying and failing – in September 2010 and February 2012 – to have the conviction overturned. Last week, his appeal ended up at the High Court, but with judgement reserved until a later date, Chambers remains a convicted man.
An air of farce, plus endless Kafka allusions, hangs over The Twitter Trial. As comedian Al Murray has rightly argued, a man has been arrested and prosecuted for making a joke. ‘Would anyone who was not joking but actually issuing a threat give an airport “a week and a bit”?’, asks Murray Chambers’ joke may not be very funny. But then again, not everyone has the same sense of humour: some people like slapstick; some people enjoy clever wordplay; seven people like 10 O’Clock Live. Whether others, the CPS included, ‘get’ a joke is irrelevant. The freedom to make jokes, to express oneself, ought to be independent of the response, be it titters, tumbleweed or, in officialdom’s case, sheer unadulterated terror.
Yet perhaps what has been more striking about The Twitter Trial than its absurdity has been the level of high-profile support for Chambers. When he turned up at court a few days ago, he wasn’t just flanked by lawyers and family. He was joined by an army of celebrities, too. Stephen Fry, the Emily Post of Twitter etiquette, had even offered to pay Chambers’ fine and legal costs. Media comment has been similarly supportive. One broadsheet columnist, citing Milan Kundera’s anti-communist novel, The Joke (1967), felt moved to declare that, ‘in [Chambers’] case, the totalitarian comparison is only mildly hyperbolic’. Which was a bit hyperbolic.
There is nothing wrong with so many influential figures being prepared to speak up for Chambers. In fact, it’s a good thing that so many arguments have been made in favour of free speech throughout the Twitter Trial.
Yet there is something that niggles here, too, something that makes the support for free speech in the Chambers trial seem less principled than it initially looks. And that something is inconsistency. So while a twentysomething accountant with a penchant for semi-edgy jokes has been the toast of the Twitterati for nearly two years now, the free speech of those less easy on the ear has hardly been defended at all. On the contrary, it has often been attacked by the same liberal constituency so keen to lend Chambers its voluble support.
Take Liam Stacey, the Welsh student convicted of a racially aggravated public-order offence earlier this year, following a series of drunken racist tweets about footballer Fabrice Muamba. Far from being greeted with howls of Paine-ite ire, Stacey’s incarceration, for saying rude, unfunny things on Twitter, was largely met with approval. Writing in the Observer, Victoria Coren could well understand ‘why newspaper columnists have spent the last week cheering the sentence and the lost appeal’. A New Statesman blogger was similarly appreciative of Stacey’s conviction: ‘Whatever you may think of his sentencing – and 56 days does seem rather harsh for such a crime, community service being a far more practical approach – Stacey is clearly a racist idiot, and it was laudable that so many spoke out against him.’ Over in the Independent, another columnist cheered the verdict: ‘If Tweeters like this are pursued, then we can view the Stacey ruling as a strategic step in removing bigotry and its harmful effects from the online sphere.’
So it seems that while Chambers’ right to be unfunny is being defended to the death, the removal of someone like Stacey’s right to be obnoxious is celebrated. There is a simple lesson to be taken from this tale of two Twitter trials. Either free speech is defended as an indivisible whole, whether it’s that of drunken racists or would-be humourists, or it’s not free speech that is being defended. Instead, what is being implicitly advocated is free speech for particular people, which is no free speech at all.
Tim Black is senior writer for spiked.