Interim guidelines set out to stop slew of legal action being taken against people posting unpopular online comments
People will not be prosecuted simply because they express unpopular or unfashionable opinions online the Director of Public Prosecutions has said.
Keir Starmer QC has said recently that people need to start putting what may be to them unpleasant comments in context. Now the interim guidelines and a public consultation he promised have been published with the aim of making sure that in future there is a clear distinction between freedom of speech and when comment becomes a criminal offence.
"The interim guidelines protect the individual from threats or targeted harassment while protecting the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it," Starmer said.
The need to set out clear guidance for police, lawyers and prosecutors comes after a string of high profile cases where comments on social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook which were often made in haste or without thought, landed the poster in front of the courts.
Taking some of these people to court and finding them guilty of a crime has caused increasing concern as shown by the case of Paul Chambers the defendant in the notorious Twitter Joke trial. It took two years and three appeals before the original guilty verdict of sending a "menacing message" was overturned
But the jailing of 19-year-old Matthew Woods for posting sick jokes about missing children April Jones and Madeleine McCann, has been viewed by many as an overreaction by authorities.
Index on Censorship chief executive Kirsty Hughes said: "Index has challenged the increasing criminalisation of social media in the UK. We welcome these guidelines and hope that they will be used to end the excessive prosecutions that we have seen in recent months.
"In a plural society that respects free expression, there is no right not to be offended and these guidelines acknowledge that."
The guidelines, which will now be debated in a three-month public consultation, do not change the law. They are designed to give clear advice to prosecutors and ensure a consistency of approach across the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to the handling of these types of cases.
The consultation will examine which communications which may constitute credible threats of violence, those that could be considered harassment or stalking, a breach of a previous court order and those that do not fall into these categories but which "may be considered grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false.
Mr Starmer said: "The first group will be prosecuted robustly whereas the second group will only be prosecuted if they cross a high threshold; a prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest if the communication is swiftly removed, blocked, not intended for a wide audience or not obviously beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in a diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression."
Chief Constable Andy Trotter of ACPO said the guidelines took a "common sense approach and will help support consistency from prosecutors and police."
Overall the guidelines have been welcomed but while many believe that this is a step in the right direction, said more needs to be clarified.
Chief executive of Victim Support Javed Khan said: "We will watch how the interim guidelines are used with interest and will respond to them in detail during the consultation period."
Hughes warned that any persisting lack of clarity over what is meant by "grossly offensive...risks the continuing criminalisation of speech."
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