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Tweet blows up on Twitter, courts less amused, man's life is ruined

Posted by: Laurence Simons 06/07/12

Paul Chambers sees the inside of the High Court for his second appeal

Some day in the future, scientists will sift through the dregs of our civilisation in disgust. "Ugh," they will say, picking up a virus-smeared iPhone with tongs. "Gross." Peeling billboards urging long-dead Neanderthals to watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians will be summarily burned. And, eventually, they will plug in our simple computers and try to figure out what the worst tweet sent of all time was.

Disclosure: the worst tweet of all time has not yet been sent. That won't happen until your racist aunt, who is only just grappling her way around Facebook, gets her hands on The New Social Network. Until then, there are trends about Justin Bieber, tired jokes about buried time capsules and large puppies and, in among all that, there is Paul Chambers' gently misguided quip about British air travel.

Adrenalin shot-like recap: in January 2010, Paul Chambers was flying out from Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire. Well, trying to: it was snowing, so no planes were flying. "Crap!" tweeted Chambers, to his mere 600 followers. "Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your sh*t together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!" I know. We're thinking it too. 'South Yorkshire has an airport?'

But since then, things have gone a bit 'sh*t definitely not together' for Paul Chambers. As a result of his arrest - he was arrested, for that tweet, and convicted of being menacing under the 2003 Communications Act - he has lost two jobs and is now on his second High Court appeal, this time flanked with a show of support by serious-faced celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Al Murray.

The obvious, wider issue for this is 'what kind of mental world do we live in where someone is convicted and fined for doing a bad tweet', but for those in the legal field it is a pricklier subject. Basically: do the courts need to get a sense of humour? Well, no. But as Padraig Reidy, news editor at free speech pressure group Index on Censorship notes, the laws at least need to be changed up a bit. "There has been an absolute failure to grasp what a tweet is and how people interact on social networking sites," he told the Guardian. "The law that is being used is not fit for the age we live in."