Prosecutions of social media trolls could fall

LONDON Wed Dec 19, 2012 5:51am EST

LONDON Dec 19 (Reuters) - The number of proscutions for posting offensive messages on Facebook and Twitter could fall under new guidelines that make a distinction between posts that merely offend and those that make credible threats of violence.

The guidelines were drawn up because prosecutions for social media communiques have mushroomed in the last few months and the police have expressed concern about the practicality of dealing with thousands of offences.

In March a student was jailed for 56 days for posting racially offensive comments on Twitter about footballer Fabrice Muamba who collapsed in a match.

But a man convicted for tweeting to his 600 followers that he would blow up a nearby airport when it closed after heavy snow won an appeal in July. He had said he was only joking.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said that communications which amount to credible threats of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment against an individual or which breach court orders will be treated differently from those that are grossly offensive.

He was differentiating between cases where prosecution is necessary to protect the individual and those in which free speech is given the priority.

"The first group will be prosecuted robustly whereas the second group will only be prosecuted if they cross a high threshold," Starmer added in a statement.

The country's chief prosecutor has been looking to give law enforcers clear guidance while protecting freedom of expression.

Posting offensive messages on Facebook and Twitter, for example, will not now be prosecuted if they are quickly removed and the user apologises.

It will also not be necessary to pursue these suspects if the communication was not intended for a wide audience.

The guidelines do not change the law and are subject to a three-month public consultation.

Starmer told the BBC that he would expect social media communications that make credible threat of violence, harass or breach court orders to attract significant sentences.

"Social media is not a law free zone. If you are in the business of issuing threats of harassing others then prosecution is likely," he said.