Casual online comments on Twitter or Facebook could bring serious legal consequences.
Tapping out an angry screed on Twitter? Posting a scathing restaurant review on your blog? Or just dissing a frenemy in a Facebook post?
Though it might feel satisfying to vent by writing angry, demeaning or threatening online comments, a growing number of people have found out the hard way those posts can have severe legal ramifications.
British lawmakers have issued new guidelines covering the way they prosecute people who post online comments that are demeaning or threatening, according to the Los Angeles Times. United Kingdom law enforcement has typically taken a hard line against offensive posts by aggressively prosecuting people for crude online jokes and comments.
In the process, however, lawmakers have sparked a fiery civil-liberties debate — activists have accused the government of censoring free speech. One young British man, for example, was sent to prison for 12 weeks after posting a tasteless joke about a kidnapping, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In the United States, people who harass or threaten anyone online can face similarly stiff legal fines and penalties. In one recent case, a woman in Virginia was sued for $750,000 by the contractor whom she accused on Yelp of stealing her jewelry and doing shoddy renovation work. The contractor also won a court injunction against the woman prohibiting her from making any similar online comments.
Keir Starmer, the chief prosecutor for England and Wales, noted that a 2003 British law allowing severe punishments for any "indecent, obscene or menacing"online comments could easily overwhelm law enforcement, according to the BBC.
"There are millions of messages sent by social media every day, and if only a small percentage of those millions are deemed to be offensive, then there's the potential for very many cases coming before our courts," Starmer told the BBC.
The new guidelines issued by Starmer's office, which take effect immediately, differentiate between crude but harmless jokes and comments that are threatening or intimidating, particularly when directed toward a specific individual.
"We need a sensible way of dividing the messages into those which are more likely to be prosecuted — the threats and the harassment and the breach of court orders — and those that aren’t — the deeply unpopular, the shocking, the grossly offensive," Starmer told the BBC.