Despite the obvious benefits of social media facilitating widespread communication and creating a means of generating global discussion about topical issues, which engages millions of online social media users every day. Not all topics up for popular discussion can be instantly published to an audience of thousands without a thought for repercussions.
The Attorney General Dominic Grieve has issued advisory notes, which are publicly available online, to discourage twitter users from expressing remarks and opinions concerning criminal cases which could pervert the course of justice through compromising the integrity of court proceedings. This need to educate people about the legal drawbacks of tweeting about such cases is imperative in protecting people from publishing posts that equate to contempt of court.
All published comments must comply with the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which encompasses a breadth of behaviour types which intentionally or accidentally undermine or could be reasonably understood to pose a high probability of undermining a defendants right to a fair trial.
Interestingly, the Contempt of Court Act pre-dates the emergence of the Internet thus the role of social media in committing contempt may become problematic if this legislation fails to sufficiently regulate this rising form of publication.
In an attempt to deter potential controversial publications, the General Attorney has expressed caution to users of online social media that the penalties for committing contempt of court may indeed increase in severity alongside the statement that the claim of ignorance in mitigation will be rejected. Similarly, social media users must be aware that re-tweeting is equally as defamatory as writing the original post.
“Re-tweeting is equally as defamatory as writing the original post”
A key example of this issue is illustrated in the case of Chad Evans (which generated in excess of 6,000 tweets), whereby nine people revealed the identity of the victim, through online social media, which breached the victims legal right to lifelong anonymity. The nine persons who used social media to comment on the case not only identified the victim but were also the source of the abuse directed at the victim, which is a further aspect of online social media all users need to be aware of.
Under the Communications Act 2003, section 127;
127 Improper use of public electronic communications network
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a)sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character; or
(b)causes any such message or matter to be so sent.
(2) A person is guilty of an offence if, for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another, he—
(a) sends by means of a public electronic communications network, a message that he knows to be false
(b) causes such a message to be sent; or
(c) persistently makes use of a public electronic communications network.
This act outlines the details of what constitutes as an improper use of public electronic communications networks, as should be adhered to by all those who publish content online.
Equivalent in relevance is the Public Order Act 1986, section 4A, which extends the responsibility of online users to act in ways that are not deemed abusive.
4 Fear or provocation of violence.
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a) uses towards another person threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or
(b) distributes or displays to another person any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,
with intent to cause that person to believe that immediate unlawful violence will be used against him or another by any person, or to provoke the immediate use of unlawful violence by that person or another, or whereby that person is likely to believe that such violence will be used or it is likely that such violence will be provoked.
These legislative acts are not orchestrated with the objective of restricting a person’s right to the freedom of speech but it provides a framework from which discussion can flourish in lawful manner.
At the end of the day – would you want your trial influenced by online speculation?
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