By Charles Randall
31 March 2012
Beware when using Twitter. Remember that a cricket tweet by Lalit Modi, seen by only 65 people, cost him £90,000 in damages at the Royal Courts of Justice in London and a socking great legal bill many times that amount.
An idle-fingered tweet by a club cricketer that slags off opponents or diminishes another club or calls an umpire as a cheat might attract interest from our 'learned friends' in a criminal or civil court. Irresponsible use of the ether, whether in the heat of the moment or not, might one day prove expensive for someone somewhere.
Captains can intervene to stop heated arguments in the bar, and clubs can moderate ill-judged comments on their websites, but Twitter cannot be controlled, beyond pleas to show restraint. Cricket is a sport where personal accusations might be used as an instant release for frustration.
But the phrase 'ton of bricks' springs to mind when the law clashes with Twitter. A Swansea University student was jailed for 56 days this week for inciting racial hatred after posting a Twitter mocking Fabrice Muamba, the Bolton and England Under-21 footballer who nearly died of heart failure on the pitch. The court was told that Liam Stacey issued further vile comments when his tweet was challenged by other users.
Stacey's was a clear-cut Twitter incitement, but in May 2010 Paul Chambers was convicted at Doncaster Magistrates Court in a more surprising way. He was found guilty of the single offence of -- to repeat the legalese -- sending by means of a public electronic communications network a message of a menacing character, contrary to sub-ss 127(1)(a) and (3) of the Communications Act 2003. He was fined £385 and had to pay £600 costs... and he lost an appeal against his conviction.
Chambers had been frustrated by airport closure at Doncaster and the impending cancellation of his flight. So he decided to tweet: "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!!" By chance his tweet was noticed by airport staff, and the anti-terror police were called in. Chambers was arrested at his office a week later for making a bomb threat.
The police decided against pressing a charge under the Criminal Law Act of 1977, but the Crown Prosecution Service took him to court under the Communications Act, which did not require them to prove an intention to carry out the threat. The case was bizarre, as Chambers published his 'threat' under his own name, accompanied by a picture of himself, and could be deemed to have given a week's notice before 'blowing the airport sky high'. Yet Judge Jacqueline Davies heard his appeal in Doncaster Crown Court and ruled that the tweet was "menacing in its content and obviously so". She added: "It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed."
One wonders whether the judiciary was establishing a precedent simply as a warning to the Twitter world, because the vast majority of 'ordinary' people would surely not take the Chambers rant literally. Yet Twitter can cause undoubted damage, including bullying, libel and criminal harm.
Lalit Modi, best known for overseeing the start of the Indian Premier League as chairman before his bankruptcy in England this year, attempted without success to defend a Twitter comment when Chris Cairns, the former New Zealand all-rounder, brought his libel action against him in London. In January 2010 Modi claimed Cairns had been misbehaving in the defunct Indian Cricket league when he tweeted: "Chris Cairns removed from the IPL auction list due to his past record in match fixing. This was done by the Governing Council today." The allegation against Cairns was shown in the Royal Courts of Justice to be without foundation and worthy of heavy damages awarded by Judge David Bean.
Modi's defence lawyers decided against claiming that the libel reached a very limited Twitter circulation, opting instead to argue justification. Cricinfo had already published a story based on the Twitter comment and quickly retracted it, paying £9,000 damages to Cairns. The decision to justify the tweet cost Modi dearly, and persistent attacks on Cairns's integrity in court increased the amount of damages awarded against him by 20 per cent.
Judge Bean said: "In my judgment Mr Modi has singularly failed to provide any reliable evidence that Mr Cairns was involved in match fixing or spot fixing, or even that there were strong grounds for suspicion that he was." He doubted the credibility of the witnesses brought by the defence and highlighted the weakness of arguments put forward. "Even if I were applying a simple balance of probabilities test, the plea of justification would fail in both respects," the judge said. "The Claimant is accordingly entitled to damages."
Tweet in haste and repent at leisure.