Beware the Trolls

We are all increasingly aware of “internet trolling” – inflammatory or provocative online posts, for example in forums or on social networks, intended to cause grief or to provoke an angry response from readers.

Recent cases suggest that the courts are now taking a robust approach towards such behaviour. In January 2014, Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo were jailed for 12 weeks and eight weeks respectively, for sending dozens of abusive and menacing tweets to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy. These messages follow Criado-Perez’s successful campaign to feature Jane Austen on the £10 note and Creasy’s support of the campaign. They were sent from numerous twitter accounts and included tweets such as “Die you worthless piece of crap” and “Rape is last of your worries”.  Sorley and Nimmo’s actions were found to contravene a section of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it a criminal offence to send, by means of a public electronic communications network, messages that are “grossly offensive” or of an “indecent, obscene or menacing” character.

Internet trolling may also constitute harassment under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which creates the criminal offence of “intentional harassment”. This includes the use of “threatening, abusive or insulting” words or behaviour intended to cause a person harassment, alarm or distress. In March 2012, Liam Stacey was jailed for 56 days for posting racially offensive comments on twitter about the on-pitch collapse of footballer Fabrice Muamba.

The government has now proposed amendments to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, as a result of which internet trolls could face imprisonment for up to two years.

Whilst the courts have yet to fully clarify when electronic communications will be deemed “grossly offensive” so as to constitute an offence under the Communications Act 2003, there can be no doubt that the police, courts, and government seem intent on tackling the issue with robust punishment.

PLEASE NOTE: this briefing note contains information about current legal issues and is only intended as a general statement of the law – it does not give legal advice. No action should be taken in reliance on this note without specific legal advice.

For further information please contact:

Colin Winter
Partner, Corporate
Telephone: +44 207 845 7404