Britain Issues New Guidelines on Prosecuting Offensive Online Comments

Henry Chu, Los Angeles Times, December 19, 2012

People who post offensive messages on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter should face criminal charges only if their comments are harassing or threatening and not simply in bad taste, according to new legal guidelines in Britain that follow a spate of controversial prosecutions.

Free-speech advocates here have been alarmed in recent months by a number of incidents in which users of social media have been arrested and jailed for posting messages that others deemed repugnant. A 2003 law authorizes such harsh punishment for “indecent, obscene or menacing” communications sent through a public electronic network.

But the law predates the explosion of such new media as Twitter and Facebook, and some police officials say that having to investigate the increasing number of complaints about offensive online messages is distracting them from more serious work.

Keir Starmer, the chief prosecutor for England and Wales, said Wednesday that new guidelines from his office would raise the bar for criminal charges under the 2003 law by limiting most prosecutions to cases involving threatening and intimidating remarks targeted at specific individuals. That would help protect freedom of expression while still allowing authorities to crack down where warranted, he said.

“There are millions of messages sent by social media every day, and if only a small percentage of those millions are deemed to be offensive, then there’s the potential for very many cases coming before our courts,” Starmer told BBC radio. “So we need a sensible way of dividing the messages into those which are more likely to be prosecuted—the threats and the harassment and the breach of court orders—and those that aren’t—the deeply unpopular, the shocking, the grossly offensive.”


“It would be stifling free speech if people thought that every time they communicated something which might be deeply offensive or deeply unpopular … then the police were likely to get involved,” Starmer said. “We need to protect the individual against threats and harassment … but free speech has its place.”

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  • WmarkW

    Real law enforcement has no time to waste on thoughtcrime; it’s the province of Diversity Administrators, EEO Outreach Coordinators, and other people in jobs that don’t need doing.

  • First, they take your guns.
    Then, they take your freedom.

  • Herger

    …….”remarks targeted at certain individuals.” I’m sure these specific individuals they are referring to are all members of certain groups that they are trying to shelter from any negative opinion.Now they have more resources to narrow there scope and guess who just lost what was left of there freedom of speech?

    • The__Bobster

      Yes, it appears like the usual suspects realized that they cast their nets so wide that they would be crushed by large-scale resistance.

    • i am

      “I’m sure these specific individuals they are referring to are all
      members of certain groups that they are trying to shelter from any
      negative opinion.”

      The truth is very threatening to those that must never be mentioned.

  • Mr America

    If you are white you can not say what you think.

    • i am

      Thought crimes are worse than violent crimes.

    • Not Politically Correct

      Leave a message…

  • Pelagian

    Some good news, then? I could use some…

  • shmo123

    It’s really sad to see Britain on a slow, inexorable slide into totalitarianism. Pathetic.

  • what is truly offensive is the massive third world immigration into Britain allowed and furthered by the UK government !

  • GeneticsareDestiny

    This is interesting. It is nice to see Britain taking a step, however small, away from stifling free speech. They used to bring criminal charges against anyone who made a Facebook/Twitter/etc post saying something even remotely negative about minorities, immigration, or diversity.

    I hope this small ray of sunshine is signaling the beginning of the end for British speech controls.

    • asketh

      That’s only a very small step, all of their race legislation is based on “perception” and very Orwellian. I live over in London and if a minority perceives something you have done or said is “racist” you could be arrested. It is a very one sided law..

  • TheTRUTH

    Does/Will this include sarcasm?

  • Michael_C_Scott

    Buy British last.