Peter Nunn sentenced to 18 weeks for social media offences

Peter Nunn sentenced to 18 weeks for social media offences

12
SHARE

On 2nd September 2014 Peter Nunn was convicted of a s127 Communications Act 2003 offence – sending “a message … that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character“.

On 29th September 2014, Nunn was sentenced to 18 weeks’ imprisonment, having previously been warned that he faced a prison sentence.

 What had he said?

As is often the case with these sorts of offences, we don’t have the exact details. We know that he re-tweeted “messages threatening to sexually assault Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy“.

A few samples were given – “One message posted described the “best way to rape a witch” … He also wrote: “If you can’t threaten to rape a celebrity, what is the point in having them?

It seems that the defence was that “he was “satirising” the Twitter backlash to the campaign.” This seems a little bit optimistic. We imagine that there were also arguments about Art 10 ECHR and freedom of speech.

 Sentence

He received 18 weeks’ immediate imprisonment. This is entirely unsurprising given a) the nature of the offence, b) the seriousness with which social media offences are treated and c) the other sentences imposed for similar tweeters sending messages to Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy MP.

The Judge would have been guided by the Magistrates’ Court Sentencing Guidelines (page 40 for the s.127 offence). You can see that these are fairly out of date (referring mainly to telephone calls), but by analogy it is in the highest category – “Single call where extreme language used and substantial distress or fear caused to receiver; OR One of a series of similar calls as described in box above“.

The starting point is 6 weeks custody with a range of a Community Order to 12 weeks custody. Because these were a series of tweets, a sentence towards the top end of the bracket would be expected.

In this case, the judge has sentenced outside that bracket, having increased the sentence by some 50%. We therefore consider the sentence to be a little high (although we are rather liberal at UK Criminal Law Blog). It will be interesting to see the sentencing remarks (if they are released) as judges are required to provide their reasons for sentencing outside of the guidelines.

The Judge also imposed a restraining order reportedly banning “Nunn from any contact with either Ms Creasy or feminist Caroline Criado-Perez”.

How does this compare to other sentences for similar offences?

Compare Nunn’s sentence to the earlier concluded cases of Nimmo and Sorley. They were also prosecuted for social media offences under s.127 of the Communications Act 2003 in relation to messages sent to Caroline Criado-Perez and the MP Stella Creasy in relation to the campaign to ensure a female featured on an English and Welsh banknote.

They received 8 weeks and 12 weeks, respectively, after a discount for pleading guilty. Those sentences represent starting points (after a trial) of 12 and 18 weeks, with the difference between the two due to previous good character.

It can be seen then that Nunn’s sentence isn’t out of step with previous sentences for similar offences.

Will he appeal?

Well based on the length being over and above that suggested in the guidelines, you might think yes. However, based on the ‘going rate’ for social media offences, particularly where violence is threatened, 18 weeks seems what Nunn could have expected, particularly as he had a trial and therefore lost any possible credit for pleading guilty.

Why did he have a trial – why not plead guilty?

Well, that’s his right (although he may well have been advised to plead guilty). It is actually good to see someone have a trial and argue the point about freedom of speech – it’s an important thing that needs to be addressed, and hopefully (for our sake) it will be appealed higher so that we can get some further guidance from the higher courts as to the limits of free speech.

In a case like this, it is not one message that makes the offence – it is the combination of all of them. Which is why it is very hard to judge whether he should have been convicted. The two comments quoted above are clearly unpleasant, but equally – in our view – clearly fall below what is criminal.

It’s the nature of the beast that it may not be possible for the media to fully report the tweet – although there are ways to do it, and the media could be a bit better in doing this.

12 COMMENTS

  1. The two comments quoted above are clearly unpleasant, but equally – in our view – clearly fall below what is criminal.

    Had Peter Nunn made these remarks to a young child say aged 5-12 for example would you conclude his were remarks were merely unpleasant but fell below what is criminal I wonder? I doubt it very much.

    What you appear to be saying is that it’s not criminal when the victim of the crime is a woman, or teenage girl (still a child in my view), who presumably you believe should be fair game, for this sort of treatment, in the name of free speech, by virtue of the fact that well… women should just accept it, is that your argument Criminal Law Blog? Why don’t you consider the threat to rape criminal?

    He should have got longer.

    • To suggest we, or I, think women are “fair game” is frankly offensive and I’m not going to be drawn into a debate about it. It is an absurd suggestion.

      Trying to keep this thread on the correct side of “sane”, however, I’d be interested in your view about whether all threats should be criminal; to steal your car, to defraud you of money; to hide a prohibited firearm on your person. If not, what is different about rape?

      Whether or not something such as this should be criminal is surely all about context and degree; is what he said so serious that only a prosecution should result? Many think “yes”, many think “no”. An explicit threat “I will rape you” or even such a threat coupled with a date/location etc. is in an entirely different category to those tweets we understand Nunn was responsible for. Additionally, you will note he retweeted them, as opposed to sending them himself. Is that not relevant?

  2. You say want to keep this debate on the right side of sane and in the very next sentence you ask what is different about a threat to steal a car, defraud or hide a firearm compared with a threat to rape!,

    Here it is, a threat to rape is about frightening and intimidating me as a person that you intend to actually rape and or harm me and, unlike a car, or any other piece of property, I can’t take my body, specifically my vagina, off. and or I lock it away securely because when I’m out and about so is it.

    My car, mobile phone, personal possessions are all insured what do I care about inanimate pieces of metal, steal or threaten to steal it, while inconvenient they’re replaceable. Rape threats are a very different proposition usually directed at women, to induce fear because they don’t know how or what they can do protect their bodies and themselves from the unknown assailant who might just be exercising his right to free speech but equally intend to follow through. And if the threatener were so “stupid”, as you appear to suggest, as to make it what you suggest is a credible, criminal threat by kindly advising of the date, time and place of their intention to put the threat into action. I’d have the police and or several large security guards surrounding me.

    That’s the thing that sets it apart the very nature of this type of threat is that it is to keep the victim in a suspended state of fear. Is this for real, do they know where I live, do they know where I work, where I shop, have they been watching me. Do they know when I’m alone at home. Where might I be if they come to follow through Stella Creasy installed a panic button in her home as a direct result of Peter Nunn’s “free speech”, that tells you that even in her own home she did not feel safe from him.

    You may think it’s about free speech, on line threats are the street harassment of the modern age and no less alarming or distressing because of their ability to make their victim feel vulnerable and afraid, and they are equally as uncontrollable.

    And you did not address my earlier point would you consider these threats unpleasant but not criminal had he directed them at a child?

    • My point was to invite you to draw the line, for it has to be drawn somewhere, otherwise every threat is a criminal offence (and we verge further towards criminalising people who speak/tweet before they think). Do you only include threats of sexual violence, or violence in general? How about merely saying nasty things about, e.g. your appearance, which could cause psychological harm (a form of violence, no?). What if the threat is to reveal part of my private life, which could cause me to feel intimidated etc. I could go on.

      In this instance, the law says what he did was criminal. We (Dan and I, in two separate posts) indicated that we thought there was a question as to whether regarding such tweets (in the particular context, i.e. seemingly no specific threat, more a general suggestion of rape, and retweeted by him, not sent directly by him to the victims) should be regarded as criminal. Undoubtedly the entire ordeal for both victims has been deeply unpleasant and very traumatising, and rightly, there has been criminal litigation as a result (in relation to other tweeters). The question as to whether it ought to be criminal invites a consideration of where the line is to be drawn; how unpleasant does something have to be to warrant intervention, and if there is to be intervention, what form should that take (a warning from Twitter? a warning from the police? an out of court disposal? right the way up to a prosecution and a custodial sentence).

      If they were directed at a child then it most likely becomes more serious but again, the above considerations apply as to whether it ought to be criminal and everything depends on context.

  3. Not a lawyer/solicitor:

    I think the defence of “free speech” can be discounted if Mr Nunn has threatened violence. If such a threat had been made face-to-face Ms Creasy would, I presume, be acting within the law to take immediate action to prevent the threat from being carried out, including the use of physical force.

    This would depend on the wording of the Tweets, and prosecuting Nunn for the so-called offence of “sending “a message … that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character“ is inconsistent with making threats of violence, is it not?

    That Ms Criado-Perez, said that Nunn’s behaviour was closer to stalking than sending menacing messages – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-29411031 – suggests that his behaviour hadn’t warranted prosecution for threatening violence. In this case perhaps it could be defended as free, however odious, speech.

    I’m a little confused though, after reading of threats of rape and murder, as to how Nunn could be prosecuted for anything other than threats of rape and murder. Is the law more liberal on this than on menacing messages?

  4. I frequently threaten to steal my colleague’s nice handbags. I reassure them I’ll lock their personal possessions in their drawer and put the key to that drawer in the key safe the only thing missing will be the bag. Yes it’s a joke and so far I have resisted the urge/temptation.

    I’m trying to understand in what context a threat to rape a woman is only ever someone exercising their free speech rather than an actual threat. As the recipient how would one distinguish that it’s not really meant for real? Why does person A’s right to free speech trump Person B’s right not to be put in fear of conduct causing alarm or distress – including speech? Yes I think threats of sexual violence/rape should always be prosecuted. Hammer that message home it’s no joking matter.

    There are other things which are equally as offensive which I would not “defend to the death the right of anyone to say them” except on a desert Island where they’ve been cast adrift by the rest of civilised society. Some of them are offensive enough they warrant airing in the criminal courts. Where does that line lay.. looking (except in the case of threats and sexual violence) at each case, and the context of what was said, why it was said, who it was to and by whom, all the facts.

    And I do believe your stance in your earlier blog, whether or not it was intended in this way, suggests that threatening women with rape, while unpleasant is okay, but not criminal, in the name of free speech. And this is not unsubstantiated because when I put your argument in another setting (threatening a child) it is not acceptable on any level.

    • I think you seek to paint a picture of black and white and not of shades of grey.

      You say “Why does person A’s right to free speech trump Person B’s right not to be put in fear of conduct causing alarm or distress – including speech?” – in some circumstances it will, in others it will not. If someone says something unpleasant to me, they have infringed my right not be subjected to that, but the response of the state ought not to be to initiate a criminal prosecution. There are degrees – and shades of grey. Which is exactly the point Dan and I have been trying to make. You seem to want to make this an issue about rape and women’s rights.

      My point about drawing the line was to show that your suggestion is arbitrary. Threats of sexual violence should always be prosecuted, but not threats of physical violence? Or psychological violence? Financial ruin? etc. Each case is fact specific which is why we have trials to determine whether particular behaviour is or is not criminal.

      Finally: you can “believe” our earlier stance suggests threatening a woman with rape is “okay but not criminal in the name of free speech” if you so wish. Neither post suggest that at all. As to being substantiated by your child point, you will recall that I said it most likely becomes more serious but that all depended on the circumstances. You seem to use the words “criminal” and “unacceptable” interchangeably. No one is arguing that the tweets here were unacceptable; the point being raised was whether the were so unacceptable to be properly considered criminal.

  5. I think the UK legal system is becoming clogged up with people being prosecuted for “something that they didn’t even know it was a crime”. It’s all about the complainer being put in a position of fear, alarm or distress. Things that can’t be measured nor quantified. As it’s impossible to “box” human feelings and emotions within legislation.
    I also think that for the police and the CPS it’s easier to “catch” a digital criminal, as it leaves easily collectable traces, it doesn’t require them to get their hands dirty or do any serious ground work, and the offenders generally aren’t career criminals that would know how to “play the system” at early stages of cautioning or interviewing to reduce the chances of successful prosecutions.
    It also seems to be that the vast majority of those cases have a female complainer, and I don’t think it’s because women don’t send unpleasant messages, but more the fact that men wouldn’t even consider reporting such incidents to the police.
    Anyway I personally find this a serious waste of my (and yours) tax money, but this is just my personal view. I appreciate that other individuals find convictions like this a sign of a civilised society. I personally disagree.

  6. It is a black and white viewpoint that attempts to suggest or would have you believe that a threat is a threat is a threat no different and dinistinguishable one from the other when this is not so.

    A threat to rape, and or to cause physical harm is different, for example the threat: I’m gonna steal your car is a different proposition to I’m gonna cut the brakes on your car. It is personal and directed at the victim’s sense of wellbeing with regards to their personal safety and with rape, bodily integrity. A threat to rape is more often than not directed at women and usually a women who dare to speak out/speak up who is visible, making it a woman’s issue, about human rights and about human decency. And did I detect that… “you seem to want to make this an issue about rape and women’s rights” being levelled as an accusation. Rape, rape threats, male violence are women’s issues but not exclusively feel free to speak out too.

    Threats of rape and sexual violence should always be prosecuted because unless someone can explain to me the context of how such threat can be intended only as a joke, was an empty threat, rather than to cause fear, distress, alarm then it absolutely should.

    You suggest that something said that is unpleasant or unacceptable to me is not criminal, I believe that it may also be criminal, presumably the two are not mutually exclusive and therefore the state has every right to initiate a prosecution, the courts can decide if what was said was criminal. Why not?

    With regards to other “free speech” issues it would depend on what the circumstances were. Imagine a concerned parent threatening someone who they discovered had made an attempt to groom their child on-line and then warned them off. Prosecute by all means but look at the evidence to make a determination for example.

    Finally, those who bleat loudest for free speech more often than not are the most privileged in society, usually unaffected by racism, sexism, homophobia, sexual harassment you know the ones their favourite refrain is “it’s political correctness gone mad”. They want the right to be insulting, offensive and to behaviour unacceptably in the name of free speech but they resent being held to account by what they perceive as lesser beings. If the cap fits then check your privilege.

    • “Threats of rape and sexual violence should always be prosecuted because unless someone can explain to me the context of how such threat can be intended only as a joke, was an empty threat, rather than to cause fear, distress, alarm then it absolutely should.”

      Believe it or not, a woman once revealed to me that her fantasy was to be raped.

      That being said, imagine the scenario of that same woman with partner/spouse both having a hard day at the office and now, on their way home, contact each other with electronic devices.

      After declaring undying love for each other and deciding what to have for dinner the partner/spouse (aware of said woman’s fantasy) communicates electronically to her that he is coming to rape her.

  7. Like I said, it was my opinion and I accept that others see it differently and that there are laws in place to protect those who need it.
    I still think that if Dave texts / tells / tweets Bob “I’m gonna f#$&ing kill you, you c*§$”, it is highly unlikely that a criminal prosecution will result. More likely that there will be words between adults and a solution will be reached without the intervention of the authorities. Maybe the police or the authorities could/should exercise intermediate powers to put an end to such incidents without costly proceedings, although I suspect it’s easier for the CPS to go after a twitter offender with an obvious digital trace that going after “street” offences that are much harder to gather evidence for. It looks good politically, it boosts their stats and after all there’s more media interest for a twitter criminal going to jail than a car thief getting community service!

    It’s also interesting how, if the likes of Frankie Boyle, Jimmy Carr, Jerry Sadowitz etc.., say on stage in front of 3000 people that “celebrity X should get ZZZZed” it’s classified as comedy, if John Doe tweets it to Jane Roe he ends up in jail!

    But I agree with you that the same actions can be perceived differently by different observers, especially when it affects feelings and emotions rather than physical actions or property.

    Regards

LEAVE A REPLY