In addition to the hate speech laws covered on page 166 of the Online Journalism Handbook, publishing journalists should also be aware of three other laws that are increasingly coming into play with relation to comments posted by website users.

The law on incitement – now “encouraging or assisting a crime” under the Serious Crime Act 2007 covers acts where individuals incite others to commit illegal acts. It was used in a number of cases surrounding the UK riots where defendants were accused of encouraging disorder using social networks such as Facebook, with two men in particular receiving a sentence of 4 years in prison as a result.

Student Liam Stacey was charged under a second act – the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 – which covers incitement to ethnic or racial hatred, after making racist remarks on Twitter in the aftermath of the collapse of Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba. He was sentenced to 56 days in prison.

The Communications Act 2003, specifically Section 127 – covers “grossly offensive” messages, a term broad enough to include a worrying range of behaviour for publishers.

A number of Twitter users have been prosecuted under the act for offensive messages sent to footballers.

It was also used to prosecute Azhar Ahmed for the following statement, also on Facebook:

“People gassin about the deaths of soldiers! What about the innocent familys who have been brutally killed.. The women who have been raped.. The children who have been sliced up..! Your enemy’s were the Taliban not innocent harmless familys. All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F*****N SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soliders grave & wish him hell because that where he is going..”

The contentious issue here is who decides what is offensive. As Fahad Ansari explains:

“The test for “grossly offensive” is whether or not the message would cause gross offence to those to whom it relates, who need not be the recipients.”

Normally these laws are used to charge individuals, but publishers and journalists should also be aware of the potential for them to be used to request users’ details – including sources. If they have been warned about such content and have not removed it, there may also be legal consequences. These are as yet largely unexplored, although the case of News Ltd in Australia – found to have breached racial discrimination laws in publishing moderated comments – is illustrative.

The lawyer Charles Russell deconstructs a series of cases relating to that act here, including the ‘Twitter Joke Trial’ where a user was successfully prosecuted after he joked that he would blow up Robin Hood airport.

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