Keir Starmer says if too many rants on social media such as Facebook and Twitter are prosecuted the courts would be choked with millions of cases
Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions (DPP) said using the law to clamp down on all offensive comments made online would choke the courts and have a "chilling effect on free speech".
Speaking about how best to handle the issue of offensive online comments at the ISPA conference this month, he said a more measured approach was needed by the police and members of the public.
He said the problem is "if the police arrest someone" for offensive online comments "they are often in front of the magistrates within hours." He has also pointed out that "banter, jokes and offensive comments are commonplace and often spontaneous" and often only meant for a few people.
He said this didn't mean certain cases should not be prosecuted but a sense of proportion is called for.
"The problem is a difficult one but there would be millions of cases in the courts if every rant was prosecuted," he warned.
This year has already seen a marked rise in the number of people prosecuted or threatened with legal action for ill-advised comments on sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
There was the ongoing case of Paul Chambers. In the summer the Crown Prosecution Service refused to prosecute a man for a homophobic comment made on Twitter about Olympic divers Tom Daley and Pete Waterfield.
Most recently a 19 year old man was arrested for burning a poppy picture on Facebook. While this angered many there was also a lot of concern that the arrest was uncalled for.
Nick Pickles of Big Brother Watch said: "The incident is certainly not worthy of arrest and [there is] a serious risk to freedom of speech after several ludicrous prosecutions in recent months."
Howerver Sarah Birkbeck, lawyer Thomas Eggar LLP said: "People's approach to use social media needs to change. It seems some people don't realise that when they tweet or retweet remarks they are publishing content and if it is defamatory they could be sued.
"Twitter users are not operating in a lawless environment and well publicised criminal prosecutions have followed unlawful activity involving malice or harassment. It reminds me of the early days of email.
"The speed and apparent informality of the medium meant people sometimes forgot they were making a permanent record, thinking it was private personal space.
"But of course in terms of court cases emails are often used as evidence and the content of emails got people into serious trouble. Since the early days most of us have learned to become more cautious about what we write and before we ‘send'.
"Media attention is currently focused on the legal action being taken by Lord McAlpine against whom false allegations were made on the internet and people began retweeting his name.
"The high profile nature of this case and action being taken by Lord McAlpine could mean people will now take a more cautious approach to what they post online or decide to retweet."
To avoid repeats of these cases the DPP will be issuing interim guidelines for police and prosecutors and opening a public consultation on the issue this month.
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