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Limits of free speech tested by off-the-cuff online remarks

By Jill Lawless
Associated Press / December 12, 2010

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LONDON — What’s a tweet, between friends? The law says sometimes it’s a threat.

One man thought he was just bantering with his pals when he joked about blowing an airport sky-high. Another was reacting to a radio phone-in when he mused about stoning a journalist to death.

Because they made their throwaway comments on Twitter, both are in legal trouble.

Their cases have outraged civil libertarians and inflamed debate about the limits of free speech in a Web 2.0 world. The Internet makes private jokes, tastes, and opinions available for public consumption, blurring the line between public and private in a way that has left the law gasping to keep up.

“I think people don’t have any idea of the potential legal ramifications of things they post on the Internet,’’ said Gregor Pryor, a digital media lawyer at Reed Smith in London. “Anything you post on Twitter can come back and haunt you.’’

Paul Chambers found that out with a vengeance. The 27-year-old trainee accountant was convicted and fined after tweeting in January that he’d blow up Robin Hood Airport in northern England if his flight was delayed.

Chambers — who lost his job and faces several thousand dollars in legal costs — said that he has instructed his lawyers to take his case to the High Court, setting the stage for a major test of free speech online.

Chambers is already an online cause célèbre. After he lost an appeal recently, thousands of Twitter users repeated his offending message — “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week . . . otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!’’ They added the tag “I Am Spartacus’’ — a reference to the 1960 movie epic in which the hero’s fellow rebels all assume his identity in a gesture of solidarity.

To many Twitter users, the outrage is obvious — Chambers was no threat to anyone, just a frustrated traveler blowing off steam. But others argue that it’s not so simple.

The judge who rejected Chambers’s appeal, Jacqueline Davies, said that “in the context of the times in which we live,’’ with an ever-present threat from terrorism, Chambers’s message was “obviously menacing.’’

Another ill-fated tweeter has received less sympathy than Chambers. Gareth Compton, a Conservative councilor in Birmingham, England, was arrested this month on suspicion of sending an “offensive or indecent message’’ after tweeting an invitation for a journalist to be stoned to death — a comment he insists was a joke.

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