Guidelines unveiled for offensive posts online

People posting offensive messages on social networking sites could face less criminal charges under new guidelines.

The guidelines, set out by  Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC, are a reaction to prosecutions over offensive posts having a “chilling effect on free speech,” with the QC claiming that thousands of people on Twitter and Facebook are being accused of criminal activity every month.

They also mean some people could avoid trial if they are sorry for criminal comments posted while drunk.

The guidance comes after a string of controversial cases. Most publicised was the May 2010 conviction of Paul Chambers who joked on Twitter about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in South Yorkshire.

His conviction for sending a “menacing” tweet drew global outrage and was eventually quashed on appeal in the High Court in July.

Starmer said the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had now dealt with more than 50 cases relating to potentially criminal comments posted online. However, he pointed out there was  so far very little case law set by senior judges to guide which trials should go ahead.

He has now set out new interim CPS guidelines,  which aim to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and upholding criminal law, and are designed to raise the threshold against which people should be prosecuted.

It means that social media messages which contain credible threats of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment, or which breach court orders will be prosecuted.

To get prosecuted a message must now be shown to be more than offensive, shocking or disturbing, rather than a joke or rudeness, the guidelines have stated.

If a message is quickly deleted, blocked by service providers or websites or written by a minor, then prosecution is less likely to take place.

The interim guidelines take effect immediately and are now subject to a consultation process. However, they are just guidelines.