The recent conviction of Reece Elliott shows just how serious internet trolling can now be taken by the authorities, but the case also raises questions as to whether context, timing and scope of the allegedly ‘grossly offensive comments’ have a large scale bearing on whether the Crown Prosecution Service will actually prosecute for messages posted online, as so far, the prosecutions have been adhoc at best.
This particular case involved Mr Reece posting on Facebook that he would kill his father, himself and at least 200 other people on tribute pages for two American girls who died in car crashes. The messages were aimed at pupils in Tennessee, USA at a time when tension and concern was high following the high school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in December of last year. Mr Reece was prosecuted for making threats to kill and for a further eight offences under the Communication Act 2003, which prevents the sending of grossly offensive messages, via public electronic communications. The argument raised by the prosecution, was that the nature of the threats to kill, as well as the large number of people that had read the message, meant that they were grossly offensive. Detective Chief Inspector Ged Noble, who led the investigation made reference to the Director of Public Prosecution’s new guidelines on dealing with offensive messages on social media platforms stating that the police will “work closely with the Crown Prosecution Service to take action against those who cross the line from their right to free speech to committing criminal offences.” I for one, hope that is true – but my experience with representing victims, tells me that a uniformity of approach on the side of the police is a long way away. Even with the DPP’s guidelines, many grey areas still exist. It is questionable that had the messages posted by Reece Elliott gone out to 199 people, and had he threatened to kill only 100 people, or had he sent them at a time when tension from the Newtown shooting had eased, would they have still been considered to be grossly offensive? These are answers that we do not know unfortunately, as there is no guidance on these point and such questions will only be answered in time, via cases which will be prosecuted and determined by the Court making decisions and setting precedents. The guidelines do no more than put common sense in to writing – with very little firm structure or guidance to the police or the prosecutors.
Mr Reece however, has been punished to the full extent of the law, and has received a custodial sentence of 28 months, which shows how serious the Crown Prosecution Service took this case of internet trolling. The cynic in me wonders whether this was because the CPS received pressure from the FBI and US Homeland Security to prosecute, or whether it was because Mr Reece threatened 200 people as opposed to 199. We simply do not know, but let us hope it was not simply because of the former.
Pinder Reaux & Associates