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.
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 You can see that these are fairly out of date (referring mainly to telephone calls), but by analogy it is in the highest category – “Single call where extreme language used and substantial distress or fear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.