Joke tweets and Facebook posts are less likely to lead to prosecutions under new legal guidelines – even if they are highly offensive.
The Director of Public Prosecutions said people should only be charged if their comments on social media are directly malicious or menacing, not merely unpleasant.
Under the new rules, messages that pose a credible threat of violence or specifically target an individual could still result in a court case, but posts that are merely ‘grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or false’ are unlikely to have wider consequences.
It would protect comics such as Frankie Boyle from making bad-taste gags and mean no repeat of cases like the ‘Twitter joke trial’ which initially convicted Paul Chambers for posting: ‘Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!’ The conviction was later quashed.
Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer said the new rules strike a balance between protecting people from harassment without having a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech.
He said: ‘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.’
The new framework is in force from today, but could be tweaked during a consultation period that ends in March.
The Crown Prosecution Service has so far dealt with more than 50 cases relating to comments posted online, several of which promoted concern.
They include a Lancashire teenager jailed for 12 weeks after making sick jokes about missing April Jones and Madeleine McCann, inspired by the Sikipedia website; a 20-year-old from Yorkshire ordered to do 240 hours of community service after tweeting ‘all soldiers should die and go to hell’; and the arrest of a Kent teenager who allegedly posted an image of a burning remembrance poppy on Facebook.