The BBC published a feature today on the categories of law that Twitter users not versed in that journalism staple McNae’s are coming unstuck on, covering the rules on matters like libel, not naming sexual offence victims and contempt of court.
Anyone who falls into this rather wide bracket, who might think “but why should I bother knowing the law, I won’t get done because I’m not a journalist and so it doesn’t apply to me”, should bear in mind that pleading ignorance isn’t a defence. Five minutes reading the feature would therefore be time well spent.
As media lawyers Niri Shan and Lorna Caddy explained in the Telegraph, commenting on Twitter and Facebook isn’t the same as a chat down the pub.
“These days, whether it’s on a social media website or in relation to an online article, we all expect to have our say and post our own content,” wrote Shan and Caddy. “The legal position of an individual who posts content online (whether on Facebook, Twitter, on comment sections of online news pages) is clear.
“He or she is responsible for that content. Today’s case [regarding Ched Evans – see below] is notable because the defendants were not aware that naming the lady was a criminal offence. This was irrelevant: ignorance was not a defence.
|Twitter in the dock (illustration by Robert Johannsen)|
However, although Twitter has seen some laws bend, with prosecutors now urged to consider whether threats to damage property or harm someone carries real menace before pushing ahead with the matter following the Paul Chambers case, other rules look set to stay firmly in place.
The ban on naming sexual offence victims is an obvious case in point. Footballer Ched Evans was convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman in April 2012, and 6,000 tweets named the victim after users decided she was “crying rape”. Seven men and two women were fined by Welsh magistrates for naming the victim, and this law isn’t set to change. I wonder how many social media users are aware that victims of voyeurism and ‘flashing’ are guaranteed anonymity too – I’d hazard a guess and say not many.