Matthew Woods, 19, from Chorley, Lancashire, posted “despicable” and derogatory comments about April Jones and Madeleine McCann on Facebook. He was arrested and charged under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003.
Woods, who appeared in Chorley magistrates Court on 8th October 2012, pleaded guilty to sending a message or other matter that is grossly offensive by means of a public electronic communications network. He was duly jailed for 12 weeks.
The chairman of the bench said that, “The reason for the sentence is the seriousness of the offence, the public outrage that has been caused, and we felt that there was no other sentence this court could have passed which conveys to you the abhorrence that many in society feel this crime should receive”.
Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 addresses the problem of the unlawful use of the public electronic communications network. It provides:
“(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.
(3) A person guilty of an offence under this section shall be liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale or to both. …”
There have been a number of high profile alleged offences in recent times under this Act aside from Matthew Woods. Prior to this case, matters were brought to the fore as a result of the abusive tweets that Tom Daley received during the Olympics. Additionally, on 27th June 2012 the Court of Appeal heard the case of Paul Chambers (Paul Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions  EWHC 2157 (Admin)) who had used Twitter to post an apparent joke about “blowing” Doncaster Airport “sky high” when he had heard that the airport had closed shortly before he was due to go on holiday. The case was heard in the Court of Appeal to consider what constitutes a message of “menacing character” so as to amount to a criminal offence and whether convicting Mr Chambers, breached his human right of freedom of expression.
In light of the confusion over how prosecutors will approach social media matters, Keir Starmer QC, announced his intention to publish guidance for prosecutors. He consulted with lawyers and academics working in the area, to draft the guidelines prior to public consultation. I was invited by the DPP to discuss matters at one of the roundtable meetings and left with a feeling that the DPP was alive to the competing factors at play in such cases.
We await the draft guidance with baited breath.