Robert Riley Jailed for Tweeting

Robert Riley Jailed for Tweeting

Photo from the BBC
                            Photo from the BBC


The death of Ann Maguire, a teacher in Leeds, made the headlines. There was, from almost all quarters, an outpouring of sympathy. Not quite all however – when events such as that happen there will always be a few idiots who take to the internet to give a contrary view. One such person was Robert Riley, a 42 year old from Cwmavon.

He had pleaded guilty earlier this week to an offence under s127 Communications Act 2003 (probably) and was jailed on 8th May 2014 for 8 weeks.

What did he say?

That’s a good question. The news report is slightly coy about this. We know that they were “offensive comments” in addition to “countless other vile comments” made by him which were “hurtful, especially to the friends and family of Mrs Maguire and the wider community of the school and area”.

The Prosecutor indicated that there were “a number of offensive tweet, only some of which related to the murder of Ann Maguire”. Some were also racist and others religiously offensive – including the missing Malaysian Plane, the Korean Ferry disaster and Auschwitz.

The only concrete thing that is stated to have been said is that he “wouldn’t have stopped” with just killing Mrs Maguire, but would have “stabbed all the others”.


Hopefully in a case like this, the sentencing remarks will be published. We do know that the magistrates took a starting point of 9 weeks, increased it by 3 weeks because it was a ‘hate crime’ and then reduced to 8 weeks because of the prompt guilty plea.

Why is this a criminal offence?

Good question. The short answer is that I don’t know. On what we have set out above, was Mr Riley insensitive? Yes. An idiot? Clearly. Should he not have posted as he did? Absolutely. Was it morally reprehensible? Certainly. But none of that means that it should be a criminal offence.

There is a genuine concern that the police and CPS are too quick to act, and this has done nothing to help contradict this. The CPS adopted a (very sensible) policy of when they would prosecute people for unlawful tweeting. This would not appear to be in accordance with it. It was mindless yobbery rather than targeted action.

Investigating this is costly. Prosecuting it is costly. Imprisoning him is costly. Is it worth it? I sincerely doubt it. And what is actually more important that the money is the principle – freedom of speech is a vital freedom and it includes the freedom to be controversial, offensive and the freedom to be a twat.

But what of the sentence?

Well, it’s pretty much in line with what you expect in these high profile twitter cases, although I would argue that this sort of thing should not really be met with the full force of a custodial sentence. Here, Mr Riley appears to be someone not of good character (and was subject to a Community Order) which is certainly an aggravating factor. The two people that got prosecuted for tweeting at Caroline Criado-Perez got 8 and 12 weeks for what seem to be much more serious offending, but it is difficult to say without exact details of the tweets.

The bigger problem, as stated above, is that it is doubtful whether he should have been prosecuted. In light of that, it’s hard to say too much sensible about the sentence, other than this is not the sort of case where Mr Riley should get his hopes about an appeal

Dan is a barrister at 2 Dr. Johnson’s Buildings practising in crime.


  1. “Poison Pen” letters have long been a criminal offence, and it was not unusual for a sender of particularly vile messages by post to receive a short prison sentence. I would have thought that the use of the internet which spreads the abuse very widely makes this crime more serious than just sending a letter direct to the target.

  2. “And what is actually more important that the money is the principle – freedom of speech is a vital freedom and it includes the freedom to be controversial, offensive and the freedom to be a twat.”

    You articulate what is ostensibly the content of a freedom but seemingly not its rationale. Which amounts to an unsupported claim. For many that’s enough. But I think it’s not. To amount to argument, a claim needs to say *why* the freedom to be offensive (assuming we’ve got a tight definition of offensiveness) may be valuable, and why it would supposedly always be more valuable than e.g. what it might threaten.

    Because too much talk about free speech these days amounts to unsupported claims, and ironically not anything even close to the description of debate, which Mill thought WAS the justification for a strong free speech right: it supposedly led to the truth and in so doing enhanced individuals’ autonomy.

    I’m not sure the defendant’s behaviour fits into that category. Nor am I convinced that our society is in danger (as his was, threatened as it was with religious rule in the late C19th) of falling down a slipper slope in which things are censored which shouldn’t be unless we permit behaviour which destroys society, where we define society as a sense of shared safety and trust that our fundamental dignity as human beings will be protected.

    • In relation to Patrick’s point, it may well be that ‘poison pen letters’ have long been an offence. Plenty of things that used to be offences no longer are, because society changes and, hopefully,matures. Maybe instead of arguing for an extension of this historic principle, why not argue for the removal of a law which is both anachronistic and restrictive of freedom of speech? What is a ‘vile message’? When does it become so ‘vile’ that someone has to lose their liberty over it? The word ‘vile’ is bandied around now, and really means very little.

      In relation to Jonathan’s points, are we really so basic that we need to be arguing over the rationale for ‘free speech’? Shouldn’t the real argument here be ‘why do we need this law?’ If you start to legislate for saying things that others find ‘offensive’, you then need to clearly define what you mean by it. Are Muslims, or any of them, offended by the public comments in the Daily Mail about corporate policies relating to the use of halal meat? Do we prosecute the posters of these comments, then? Where do you draw the line? Unless someone provides me with a very good reason for making what anyone may say an offence which may lead to them losing their liberty, I remain positively for the right for anyone to say whatever they wish to say. We are now living in a state where plenty of people are actually afraid to say anything (particularly on social media) for fear of a knock on the door from a couple of guys in blue from the local constabulary. The civil law can take care of defamation of character, and you can get your remedy there if you feel your character has been tainted by something someone has said about you personally. It’s a cliche, but I may not like what someone has to say, but I will defend their right to say it, unless and until a very, very good case is made out as to why it needs the intervention of the state to protect the public from it.

      I am wholly with Dan on this one. This guy was a total t**t, and what he said was by all accounts something most people would not have said, but prosecution and prison?? If people cannot see why the trend over the past few years is clearly demonstrating a slippery slope, maybe they are looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

  3. It sounds to me that this twit (not “twat” – a “twat” is something quite different from a twit; check a lexicon) was simply making a bad joke, at the expense of school teachers, in the same poor taste genre as the following golden-oldie:

    Question: What do you call a fifty-seater coach driving over a cliff with forty-nine lawyers on board? Answer: A waste of a seat.

    However, he pleaded guilty. He has only himself to blame for that.

  4. Markjf62 you said …It’s a cliche, but I may not like what someone has to say, but I will defend their right to say it…

    Does this mean you would defend the right of a paedophile to describe in detail the theory and practice of sexual abuse of children and why, according to them it’s not wrong. A drug pusher to describe in detail how and where to source class A drugs, say crystal meth and then how to take it? What I want to clarify is whether you actually mean what you say or are you actually saying “it is political correctness gone mad” which is most people truly mean. They want to enjoy their privilege which is the right to to offend in keeping with their prejudices and stereotypes minus any repercussions.

    • I hope I made clear that my position is that unless and until anyone makes a case as to why people using words should be the subject of criminal proceedings and potentially losing their liberty over it, people should be free to say anything they wish to say. If you can make a case why anyone saying X, Y or Z should be subjected to the full force of the state being brought against them, (to include arrest, detention, trial and imprisonment), then a debate can follow.

      That said, I suspect that if someone wished to exercise their right to free speech and detail how and where to source Class A drugs, say crystal meth, I am sure the police would be delighted to have access to the information via a computer screen. Only an idiot would provide this information online, so if they wish to exercise their right in this regard, go ahead. It won’t make me any more likely to take Class A, or any, drugs. On this basis, can you think of any good reasons why a paedophile might not wish to avail himself (or, I suppose, herself) of the right? I can think of several.

      I also regard ‘political correctness’ and actually legislating against ‘verbal offence’ as two different animals. I just can’t understand why more people are not more perturbed at the use of words being criminalised on the basis simply that they ‘offend’, which is the reason Riley was imprisoned. George Carlin once did an incredible monologue on the number of words that people now cannot say without somebody screaming ‘I’m offended’.

      My point remains: unless and until a case has been made why ANY behaviour needs to be criminalised, for the good of society, with the potential for someone losing his/her liberty, it shouldn’t be. Reason exposes all bigotry, and the only thing that gives reason the opportunity to do this is through bigotry exposing itself, and being allowed to.

      • With due respect I did not ask for a rationale or reason why a paedophile or drug dealer would do these things/say these things what I asked was are you defending their right to tell others about what they do paedophilia and druggie stuff. I can think of several rational scenarios where they might do this but that’s not the point so I don’t want it to be side tracked.

        • I think I have made my position perfectly clear. I defend anyone’s right to say anything unless and until someone makes a good enough case for it being criminalised.

  5. Markjf62 Paedophiles can communicate with one another and share stories and details of the misdeed (spent) and or form a group to lobby for what they do to be legalised (Paedophile Exchange Network for example). Drug dealers can target young people on social network and encourage them to try Class A drugs by making it sound glamorous and attractive. People can incite others racial hatred and perpetrate sexual harassment. You would allow all of this and say nothing is this correct. Doesn’t evil triumph in these circumstances hasn’t this been proven?

    • If you wish to criminalise an activity, any activity (eg smoking marijuana), then you can make a case for criminalising the encouragement of that activity by words used on social media if you wish. That is what you have done. You have opened a debate. But anything which shuts down the right of free expression for the sake of causing ‘offence’ without very, very good reason should be resisted; THAT, in my opinion, is when ‘evil’ (whatever that means) is likely to triumph.

      • I think you’re straw manning that’s not what I said you’re setting up something different my point which would you defend the rights of the morally bankrupt such as paedophiles, drug dealers for example to say what they want about what they do, to whom they want and without consequence?

        p.s. I’m happy to provide you with examples of evil if you are struggling to identify what I mean by evil – e.g. Ariel Castro & whoever took Madeleine McCann, the man who assaulted and murdered a four year old child in the family home while his parent’s slept, that’s three.

  6. And yet still you do not address the question, how strange, or perhaps that is the answer in itself it means you recognise that there are some things which are offensive and some which are both offensive and indefensible and you would not defend the freedom/right of anyone to say such things.

  7. I suppose, L-E-S, if someone wants to argue for reducing the age of consent to 15 as it is in Denmark, that person will be arguing for making lawful something which is now unlawful and which many of us morally offensive and indefensible – some want the age increased!

    I have to say that I think this prosecution was a hammer to crack a thoroughly offensive nut, but I am not going to lose any sleep over it.

    Incidentally: I hope you mean straw-personning.

    Yours, as ever, in siblinghood!

    • Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me, or so the rhyme says, and as we all know it is untrue because words are powerful and there are thousands of examples of the effect of not checking or challenging free speech and the results.
      Back at you in sisterhood.

  8. What view did you take – if indeed you were alive and old enough to take on, and if not what view would you have taken, on the Satanic Verses?

    • I was very much alive and functioning when the Satanic Verses erupted. If memory serves the publisher – Penguin were not far from where I worked at that time. I’ve never read it and don’t particularly care for Mr Rushdie who strikes me as pompous. However should the book have been burnt, I don’t think so. Should there have been a fatwa absolutely not. I think it demonstrates the power of words to be offensive. I have a muslim husband (I’m Christian) we frequently disagree about many topics including this one it is hard to see the world through someone else’s eyes. I can see there was considerable offence caused by it but I don’t understand why.

      • Yes. There was ‘considerable offence’ taken, and we actually all know the reason why. What it actually demonstrates is not ‘the power of words to be offensive’ but the hyper-sensitivity of certain people who base their moral compass on ancient texts and superstition.
        Your last comment is, frankly, amazing. ‘I can see there was considerable offence caused by it but I don’t understand why.’ Well, firstly you have already said you haven’t read the book, so on that basis how can you possibly comment on why anyone should be offended by the contents of it? Secondly, even if you had read it, you aren’t a Muslim, so you don’t share the beliefs that led to the ‘offence’. And when do you EVER think a fatwa should be issued (let alone enforced) against a ‘non-believer’ if you think one shouldn’t have been issued in this case (in relation to a book you haven’t read pertaining to a religion you don’t believe in)?