This week the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, announced that he is to publish guidelines aimed at trying to prevent Twitter users from falling foul of contempt of court laws.
Recently there have been several cases, which highlight just how free and easy people are when speaking about legal cases across the social networks. Of course the cases that hit the headlines tend to be concerning a celebrity in one way or another. While nobody expects these people to have law degrees, or indeed a basic understanding of publishing law, one would hope that their agents might have a small degree of common sense and pass on advice to their clients.
There are other instances where 'ordinary' tweeters are getting into trouble because they feel they are immune from prosecution or simply do not understand that they are breaking the law. Maybe because nobody down the pub, or in the workplace, has pointed out to them that to spread defamatory and erroneous gossip is actually against the law. And, as gossiping on social networks simply feels like an extension of the chat around the water-cooler or at the bar, they don’t think there is anything wrong with it.
Of course our national newspapers haven’t exactly been paragons of virtue and have set the tone for what has become seen as acceptable behaviour.
Three men who used Twitter and Facebook to publish photographs purporting to be of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson had legal action taken against them when they breached a worldwide injunction preventing publication of any material that could identify the two killers.
Nine people were prosecuted for revealing the name of the woman raped by former Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans, on various social media sites. All nine claimed that they did not know it was a criminal offence to name the victim of a sexual offence. Ignorance is not a defence.
Anyone commenting about a case or defendant in a way that could prejudice a trial could be prosecuted for contempt and imprisoned.
There is an education to be had, but will people follow to the attorney general’s Twitter feed to find out about the legal issues involved? Who else is going to inform the younger generation (or indeed the rest of us) of what is acceptable and legal online behaviour? How many parents and teachers understand social media law?
Hopefully the above examples, along with other examples such as the silly Sally Berkow debacle, will be enough to get the message across, but somehow I doubt it.
See social media legal expert Steve Kuncewicz's presentation here