At what point can we just declare that the terrorists have won and let them get on with running things? Almost every day brings them new victories. I’m not talking about murders and bombings, those are merely weapons. To defeat a democratic society you make it turn on itself. And so a stunning victory was achieved this week in the courts of England, when a man was criminalized for making a joke on Twitter.
Perhaps I should begin by explaining what Twitter is, as many – including it seems the judge in this case – still have no idea. Twitter is confusing to some because it doesn’t easily fit into the categories of public medium or private communication. On one hand it’s very public, in that anyone who joins can post remarks on it. In another sense it is quite private; your posts are (normally) only seen by people who choose to see them, and therefore know who you are.
Paul Chambers was planning a trip to Belfast to see a friend when he heard that his (oddly named) local airport had been shut down by last winter’s bad weather. “Crap!” he wrote, “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!” Now that wasn’t a very funny joke, but it is quite obvious that it was meant in jest, as a way to vent his frustration. And yet he now has a criminal record – which in turn has destroyed his career as an accountant – for “sending, by a public communications network, a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”.
Clearly ‘menacing’ is the word at issue here. And clearly it was not menacing, because (a) it was patently not intended to be, (b) menaces are generally sent to the person or persons you are trying to menace, not to your friends, and (c) terrorists never preface their threats with the word “Crap”.
It is also clear that this law was not intended to criminalize casual speech. Judge Jonathan Bennett acknowledged this. Yet using his years of carefully honed stupidity, he managed to reach the conclusion that though not meant as a threat by the sender, the fact that it might be misunderstood to be menacing (by whom?) makes it a criminal act. He was satisfied – and these are his exact words – that the message was of a “menacing nature in the context of the time we live in”.
He may as well have said “I must deliberately misconstrue all jokes as serious expressions of intent, because that is what the terrorists have instructed me to do.” He is doing their bidding. By cooperating with their aim of destroying a free society, this judge may as well be a terrorist himself.
I’m not joking here.