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Online outrage follows 'Twitter Joke Trial'

LONDON — He missed the plane. Now thousands of annoyed Internet users say authorities missed the joke.

When Paul Chambers was arrested and fined for posting a joking message to micro-blogging site Twitter in which he threatened to blow up northern England's Robin Hood Airport if it didn't reopen in time for his flight, it caused a minor stir.

Now that a court has turned down his appeal, the Internet has come alive with outrage, with thousands of online fans posting comic threats to the regional airport out of solidarity.

Many have added the tag "IAmSpartacus" to their posts — a reference to Stanley Kubrick's 1960 epic Spartacus, in which the titular hero's fellow rebels all assume his identity in a gesture of solidarity.

The act of online revolt — the Associated Press counted some 5,000 posts carrying the "IAmSpartacus" tag within two hours — seems to have cowed authorities. A spokeswoman for the South Yorkshire police, which originally arrested Chambers, scoffed and said "no" when asked if police planned on arresting any of Chambers' online fans.

But she refused to answer when asked why the thousands of jokey threats to blow Robin Hood Airport "sky high" would be treated any differently than Chambers' original tweet, which resulted in his arrest.

The Spartacus reference was Twitter's top trending subject worldwide, while rights groups back in Britain weighed the implications of Chambers' failed appeal — warning that the so-called "Twitter Joke Trial" had set an ugly precedent for free speech online.

Police and prosecutors "seem to have completely ignored the notion of context, which is a very dangerous thing," said Padraig Reidy of the London-based Index on Censorship. "If he genuinely intended to blow up the airport, he wouldn't have tweeted it. It's obviously a joke."

Chambers' lawyer, David Allen Green, said his client's case should never have gone to court. According to accounts carried on Green's blog and in the British media, the 27-year-old was alarmed when heavy snow closed Robin Hood Airport, which he was due to fly out of in order to see a friend he'd met online.

In a profane message posted to dozens of followers on Jan. 6, he stated: "Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get (it) together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!"

The tweet might have faded into the obscurity of the Internet had it not been discovered by an airport duty manager browsing the Internet five days later. The manager forwarded the offending tweet on to his station manager, and — even though the threat was deemed "noncredible" — it was passed on to police.

On Jan. 13, Chambers was arrested and questioned. His case file notes, "There is no evidence at this stage that this is anything other than a foolish comment posted on Twitter as a joke for only his close friends to see," but he was charged and convicted.

Rejecting Chambers' appeal Thursday, Judge Jacqueline Davies at Doncaster Crown Court ordered him to pay $3,225 in prosecution costs, in addition to a fine.

Writer and actor Stephen Fry — one of several celebrities backing Chambers' cause — offered financial help, tweeting "whatever they fine you, I'll pay."

Online outrage follows 'Twitter Joke Trial' 11/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:21pm]
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