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Rude web trolls should NOT be jailed, warns prosecution chief

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Web trolls should not be hauled before the courts if their malicious tweets and Facebook updates are quickly deleted, the Director of Public Prosecutions advised today.

Not having many friends online and sticking to offensive banter should also keep Brits out the dock.

Keir Starmer QC published this morning his interim guidelines for crown prosecutors that demanded a more measured approach to tackling trolling on the internet. He warned last month that the courts could be choked by millions of cases if every single person who said something annoying online was charged under section 127 of the Communications Act.

The number of trolling prosecutions is on the rise, and in October a 20-year-old bloke was jailed for 12 weeks for sharing off-colour jokes about a missing five-year-old girl.

"These interim guidelines are intended to strike the right balance between freedom of expression and the need to uphold the criminal law," Starmer said this morning.

He added that people firing off messages that are "credible threats of violence, a targeted campaign of harassment against an individual or which breach court orders" should be prosecuted, although web posts that are deemed "grossly offensive" should not be pursued.

He said:

A prosecution is unlikely to be in the public interest if the communication is swiftly removed, blocked, not intended for a wide audience or not obviously beyond what could conceivably be tolerable or acceptable in a diverse society which upholds and respects freedom of expression.

The interim guidelines thus protect the individual from threats or targeted harassment while protecting the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it.

Under the new guidelines, prosecutors must appreciate the difference between a threat and a "grossly offensive" message before trying individuals in the courts. They would need to carry out a "high threshold" test to determine whether a case should be heard, Starmer said.

"They should only proceed with cases involving such an offence where they are satisfied that the communication in question is more than offensive, shocking or disturbing; or satirical, iconoclastic or rude comment; or the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it," he added.

The Association of Police Officers (ACPO) welcomed the guidelines with comms lead Chief Constable Andy Trotter describing Starmer's advice as "a common sense approach" that will help "support consistency from prosecutors and police".

The director's guidance - which does not change the current law - will now be subjected to public scrutiny for three months. ®

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