New guidelines to be issued regarding social media abuse

23 September 2013

The DPP's announcement came as the CPS decided not to bring charges against the Port Talbot Town FC midfielder, Daniel Thomas, who had been suspended since last month following an allegedly homophobic message that he posted on Twitter regarding Olympic bronze medallist Tom Daley.

The decision not to take any further action against Mr Thomas was made on the basis that the message was not meant for Daley, despite it referring to himself and fellow Olympic diver Peter Waterfield.  The message was originally posted on the 30th July and was thereafter widely distributed.

Mr Starmer said "There is no doubt that the message posted by Mr Thomas was offensive and would be regarded as such by reasonable members of society.  But the question for the CPS is not whether it was offensive but whether it was so grossly offensive that criminal charges should be brought."  He went on to say that the context and circumstances of this particular message, whilst misguided, showed that Mr Thomas intended the message to be humorous and that it was not intended to be sent beyond his friends and family.  He also said that Mr Thomas took reasonably swift action to remove the message and had expressed remorse.  As a result of this incident and Mr Thomas' arrest, he was suspended by his football club pending the investigation.  It is understood that neither of the Olympians knew of the message until it was brought to their intention following media reports.

However, it once again raises the issue of social media and the law.  Mr Starmer said "This case is one of a growing number involving the use of social media that the CPS has had to consider.  There are likely to be many more.  The recent increase in the use of social media has been profound."  He went on to say that the the time had come for "an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media".  He said he would be issuing new guidelines as a result of this particular case, however it is understood that it will be sometime before those guidelines are issued as they will be subject to wide consultation.

The Communications Act 2003 makes it an offence to send a communication using a public electronic communications network if the communication is deemed to be 'grossly offensive'. 

This is one of a number of very high profile cases involving social media, particularly Twitter, this year.  Mr Starmer said that he hoped that the move would ensure that "decision making in these difficult cases is clear and consistent".

"Social media is a new and emerging phenomenon raising difficult issues of principle which have to be confronted not only by prosecutors but also by others including the police, the courts and service providers.  The fact that offensive remarks may not warrant a full criminal prosecution does not necessarily mean that no action should be taken."