Obviously, we don’t want people being prosecuted for insults, jokes, and offensive statements, but you shouldn’t be able to break the law with impunity because you’re online either.
People who post offensive messages on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter should face criminal charges only if their comments are harassing or threatening and not simply in bad taste, according to new legal guidelines in Britain that follow a spate of controversial prosecutions.
Free-speech advocates here have been alarmed in recent months by a number of incidents in which users of social media have been arrested and jailed for posting messages that others deemed repugnant. A 2003 law authorizes such harsh punishment for “indecent, obscene or menacing” communications sent through a public electronic network.
…Keir Starmer, the chief prosecutor for England and Wales, said Wednesday that new guidelines from his office would raise the bar for criminal charges under the 2003 law by limiting most prosecutions to cases involving threatening and intimidating remarks targeted at specific individuals. That would help protect freedom of expression while still allowing authorities to crack down where warranted, he said.
“There are millions of messages sent by social media every day, and if only a small percentage of those millions are deemed to be offensive, then there’s the potential for very many cases coming before our courts,” Starmer told BBC radio. “So we need a sensible way of dividing the messages into those which are more likely to be prosecuted – the threats and the harassment and the breach of court orders – and those that aren’t – the deeply unpopular, the shocking, the grossly offensive.”
Under the new guidelines, most if not all of a recent rash of high-profile cases would probably not have been prosecuted, including a youth who was sent to jail for 12 weeks for posting crude jokes about two kidnapped girls and another young man who was sentenced to 240 hours of community service for declaring on Facebook that British soldiers “should die and go to hell.”
Obviously, the last two examples wouldn’t fly in the United States where we have a First Amendment. Moreover, we wouldn’t want “deeply unpopular, the shocking, (or) the grossly offensive” comments to be prosecuted.
On the other hand, violent threats or death threats? You bet they should be prosecuted. Just because a crime is committed online doesn’t make it any less of a crime and it’s time for law enforcement to enter the 21st century and start treating it that way.