Time for informed debate about the boundaries of free speech and social media

Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has announced that he is to issue guidelines for social media prosecutions.  In a statement the DPP said that “the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media.”

The remarks follow the decision not to prosecute Daniel Thomas for posting a homophobic message on Twitter relating to Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield.

The Communications Act 2003 makes it an offence to send a communication using a public electronic communications network if that communication is “grossly offensive”. In this case the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, Jim Brisbane, concluded that on full analysis of the context and circumstances the message was not deemed to be so grossly offensive that criminal charges were sought.

Social Media poses new legal problems for the CPS and DPP.  In his statement Starmer recognised that the “task of balancing the fundamental right of free speech and he need to prosecute serious wrongdoing on a case by case basis”. After a series of highly public cases involving twitter he acknowledged that the CPS faced difficult judgement calls and, due to the largely unchartered territory of social media, the CPS needs to proceed on a case by case basis.

The DPP has said that there will be wide public consultation before final guidelines are published as well as series of round table meetings with campaigners, media lawyers, academics, social media experts and law enforcement bodies. Big Brother Watch will be keeping a close eye on the development of the guidelines.