Devastation! Destruction! Delays! England sees itself closed up from the world, shivering in the heavy January snow. Everywhere, the news bleats of cancelled flights and transport delays. Roads close, ice refuses to thaw and chaos ensues.
One bleak, miserable morning on January 6th, 2010, a storm begins to brew that would have far more lasting impact than any disruption caused by a little bad weather. The snow piled higher and higher, and the citizens of the snowed in landscape grew more and more embittered. From the depths of a frozen Britain finally came the cantankerous call (among so many others, but only one would be so important), “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!!"
25 words would cost a man his job, and bring to life another story about the relationship between criminal law and the internet. In the end of a long battle, on July 27th July 2012, Paul Chamber’s conviction was quashed for the above comment; his statement viewed as a joke and lacking in ‘menacing’ character.
Yet it is cases like these that garner so much media attention and public interest that set in motion the ‘big’ questions. With an ever-changing, constantly updating, forever growing online community – where does the law fit in? Social media sites spring up and die within years. Tweets, comments and blogs pile upad infinitum, and while most slip through into a gaping maw of irrelevance – when and where, and more importantly, how does the law intervene?
In the coming years, social media and the law are going to cross paths more and more often. The ‘storm’ unleashed by Mr Chamber’s comment will not die anytime soon. It was found that, in 2011, the UK had around 62 million citizens, 30 million of which use Facebook. The massive growth of social media will also see a growth in cases and legislation dealing with it, too.
So where does the law stand now?
We’ve all seen situations like the following:
But where does the law stand on using Facebook misdemeanours to dismiss someone?
A recent case from 2011, Preece v JD Wetherspoons Plc showed that when an employer has a clear social media policy in place, then it is fair to dismiss an employee who comments inappropriately about customers on Facebook. However, Whitham v Club 24 Ltd showed that dismissal in these circumstances can still be unfair – the burden of proof lies on the employer to show actual or serious risk of potential harm to the business.
This is just in the UK, though. A case in the US, Bland v Roberts, recently found that a Facebook like does not constitute a constitutionally protected speech. Allegedly, Daniel Ray Carter Jr was fired for liking the page of a candidate challenging his boss for the job of Sheriff in Hampton, Virgina. Questions begin to rise – is it okay to fire someone for ‘liking’ the Republican’s Facebook page when it would be illegal to fire someone forstatingthat they liked the Republican party?
The law, in the eyes of Scotland and England, is not a granter of freedom. It is something that restricts freedom. The law does not exist to preserve free speech, to this extent, because there is no constitution dictating that it must. The reasons behind this are that anything not restricted by law, is by extent, freedom. Even when we turn to Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, freedom of expression is subject to restrictions “in accordance with the law” and is “necessary in a democratic society.” It is not an absolute right, by any means.
So, then, should we evaluate what we say on social media sites just as much as we do in a public place? Should we only express ourselves professionally online despite having ‘personal’ profiles? Should we watch what we wish for, and what we say, because one judge might view it as a joke and another might see it as a serious threat?
The world of social media is just like that heavy snow from January 2010, it piles up and grows at an unrelenting speed – covering everything and anything from airports to roads to homes. The question that has still to be answered (and perhaps never will be, as the law is a creature that changes and evolves as much as society does) is when do we close the airport and put someone in jail for something he or she said online?
In the coming months and years, there will massive changes to the law in regards to social media. I’ll be watching, will you?
By Catriona Lindsay, second year Law student, University of Aberdeen, and current Yomego intern @yomegosocial