Just How Offensive Does A Tweet Have To Be To Get You Into A U.K. Jail?

Britain is attempting to clarify the law governing offensive messages on social networks, but there's a thin line between freedom of speech and a "grossly offensive" post.

Keir Starmer, the U.K.'s Director of Public Prosecutions, has attempted to clear up the opaque and nebulous subject of what constitutes an offensive tweet or post. He has published (.pdf file) a set of interim guidelines to help prosecutors decide what should be protected by the freedom of speech maxim, what is unfortunate but acceptable, and what is downright malicious. Here's your handy cut-out-and-tweet guide to what *&$@er-%&*ing ¡∞%# will get you an appearance in front of the judge, and what will let you off scot-free. M'Lud.

Good Tweet-i-quette

  • If you delete your message swiftly and there is remorse (having sobered up is not a defense).
  • Satire, iconoclasm, rudeness and offensiveness is all acceptable.
  • Banter and jokes are okay as well.
  • Merely being "grossly offensive, obscene and false" is not enough to warrant prosecution.

Bad Tweet-i-quette

  • Credible threats of violence
  • Harassment, stalking, aggressive trolling
  • Identifying victims of sexual offense or those whose identity is protected by a court order.

Over 50 cases have already been processed through the British courts but, with millions of social media entries appearing daily on the Internet, there is potential for many more legal cases. The most high-profile involved the message in the image above, here re-tweeted by Dara O'Briain for the #IAmSpartacus campaign to free its original author, Paul Chambers. Chambers, an accountant, was convicted and fined and, as a result, lost his job. A high-profile campaign, led by celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Graham Linehan and Eddie Izzard eventually led to the quashing of his conviction.

The consultation period ends in March 2013, after which the official guidelines will be published.

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