BRITAIN’S TWITTER JOKE TRIAL- A View With American Lenses

Twitter is such a big part of comedy these days that anyone who had ever wanted to tell jokes to the public has found in Twitter a safe way to avoid having to get behind a microphone and risking bombing in front of audiences. Except that sometimes this harmless way of testing their comedic chops can also get these amateur comics just the kind of unwelcome attention they’d rather not have: This time, we are talking about unfriendly attention from law enforcement. The kind of attention that Englishman Paul Chambers, an accountant by trade, received not long ago.

Here’s what happened: In January 2010, Chambers was friends with a lady he met on Twitter and who lived in a different city from him. When he arranged to fly to her city to meet her, he learned that the airport had been closed due to a snowstorm. He then tweeted the following joke to her: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, or I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” However, in an era of worries about terrorism, local law enforcement did not share his sense of humor and certainly did not find his joke funny. So, to Chambers’ shock, he was arrested and charged with “menacing” conduct under the Britain’s communications law. It took more than two years of knock-down drag-out litigation before Chambers was finally let off the hook in July this year following an appeal to the highest court in the land. What a high price to pay for a joke on Twitter!

Because it was a joke on Twitter that got him in trouble, Chambers’ case quickly got the support of the comedy community in the UK which organized fundraisers in the form of comedy gigs to help him pay his legal bills. The comedy community saw an attack on someone making a joke on Twitter as a sign of terrible things to come for everyone who makes jokes on Twitter, especially folks like them. So, literally overnight, Chambers had become a poster child for freedom to make jokes on platforms like Twitter.

Jon Petrie, one of the organizers of the gigs, cut straight to the chase about why the fight was so important to comedians: “Comedy and Twitter go hand in hand and if Paul was to lose this case it would affect everyone wishing to make a joke when using social media. His tweet was so clearly meant as a joke, there has been a serious sense of humor failure on the part of the British law system.”

As it happens, British comics are not the only ones who make jokes on Twitter. Over here in America, tweeting of jokes is all the rage today, not only among comics but also among celebrities and non-celebrities alike. And the growing trend has steadily caught on like wildfire since about 2006 when Twitter came along on the social media scene.

Considering just how important Twitter is to American comedy today, some have wondered whether what happened to Paul Chambers in the UK could happen over here in America and, if so, whether the law enforcement folks could actually win such a case. By the way, this question is quite understandable considering that law enforcement folks here in America have actually already gone after some Twitter users for what they said on the platform: for instance, this past August, the police in New York (NYPD) got a court order that forced Twitter to hand over the account information of a Twitter user who had reportedly threatened on his Twitter page to go on a shooting spree at a New York City theater in the style of the Aurora, Colorado theater massacre just the month before. Twitter had tried to fight the subpoena on the basis that the alleged threat was not “present, specific and immediate” enough, but the police ended up winning the argument.

Yet, making a joke on Twitter is a different animal from threatening to shoot up a theater. So, can the Paul Chambers situation happen here in America? Well, the short answer is no!

For starters, a joke made on Twitter is not really different from a joke made onstage. So, to charge someone with a crime for a joke is most unusual step and law enforcement folks truly have a long way to go to make that kind of thing happen. To do so, they actually have to first prove that remarks that were made as a joke were not in fact a joke. And the biggest problem for law enforcement in proving such a thing is that they are not the ones to decide whether a remark is a joke or not. That is something which is left for the court to figure out on its own using some objective standard that makes sense to the “average” person in society.

In trying to figure out whether the particular statement was a joke or not, the court usually tends to give a lot of weight to the “context” of the words. The question of “context” is really where such cases stand or fall. Here we are talking about such things as who the person saying the words is; who the readers or listeners are; and even more important, what the readers or listeners think of the words that were used and how those readers or listeners understood the intention of the person using the words.

Long story short, if the average Joe on the streets of America would have thought that the words were being said as a “joke”, then that’s the end of the matter, regardless of whatever the law enforcement people might think of it. And, just because the cops find the joke “offensive” is not enough. Plus, it doesn’t even matter that the joke is a bad joke rendered in very poor taste. Speaking of “context”, a case of that kind is even harder for the law enforcement folks to win if the person making the statement is a professional comedian. Fact is, comedians make their living by telling jokes. Of course, even non-comedians who are understood by their listeners to be making a joke are protected too. To be sure, freedom of speech under the First Amendment offers protection to every person in America, including of course those making jokes on Twitter or other social media.

Yet, it must be noted that freedom of speech under the First Amendment will not protect someone who commits a crime, such as someone “inciting” other people to violence or making a threat to blow up a movie theater. There is a difference between a joke and a crime and merely making a joke is not a crime. And if what was said can be understood as a “threat” or an “incitement”, then it won’t matter that the forum used for the statement was a place where people would normally make jokes. This means that because “context” is everything, it is even possible in an extreme case for a professional comedian to do or say something while onstage that may be considered a crime and not be regarded as merely a joke. Again, this would be an extreme case.

In the Paul Chambers case, it is pretty obvious that British law enforcement was too “zealous” in the manner they acted in his case. They made themselves the judge of what a “joke” means and they decided on their own that what was clearly a joke was actually a crime. What a stretch! Sadly, it took more than two years before they were finally told the difference between a crime and a joke. Given American sensibilities about free speech for all, which includes the First Amendment’s protection of comedians’ right to make jokes, it is easy to predict that the outcome of the Chambers case would have been the same over here as it was in the UK, except that such an outcome would have been reached much earlier here than it was reached in the UK. For starters, it’s even doubtful that such a case would have brought in America in the first place. And it’s a safe bet that American law enforcement would have opted to use their precious resources of time and money much better than that.

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