When is a joke not a joke?
In the UK, a Conservative councillor called for a left-wing columnist to be stoned to death on his Twitter account. The columnist, a left-wing Muslim woman of Indian descent, had previously received death threats. The councillor says that his tweet was a joke, admitting that it was in bad taste. He was suspended from the Tory party.
But the question is, was this a criminal act? Was his tweet really putting the columnist's life in danger?
There was a similar case, when an irate traveller found that a nearby airport had been closed, and his flight cancelled - he wrote “You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!”, and received a criminal conviction for the joke. The judge contended that he should have known it might be taken seriously.
First, the major difference between the two is that the first involved public figures, the second a 27-year-old accountant. But even then, what Gareth Compton, the councillor said was crass and in bad taste, but was it a real basis for fear or threat? The contention among his defenders (from all sides of the political spectrum) has been that it was obviously a joke, and should not have been taken seriously. I'm not so sure. I certainly think he had a case to answer - up to the point where the columnist dropped charges. The reason is not because of what he said, but the context in which it was said. He is a public figure. She has received death threats in the past.
On the second instance, I would have thought the judge should have had a much harder time upholding the criminal conviction. It hasn't been reported whether or not the Twitter account was public. If not, this was a private joke between friends. It wasn't at the airport. It was obviously due to personal frustration. And if it was public, the question is, really, who is this guy? Is he a world-famous tweeter? Are hundreds going to read him? Or would it have just been a few paranoid security officials? If he'd made the joke, and been seen buying vast quantities of fertiliser, there might be a case.
Talking about blowing up an airport in an airport carries a potential conviction. But surely outside that, there needs to be some balance?
This is an area where legislative standards are evolving, but there is obviously a need for greater debate on the bounds between privacy and freedom of expression, and what constitutes private comment and public opinion.
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