Watch what you retweet, we could prosecute you, says CPS

Repeating other people's 'grossly offensive' messages on social networks could end with you having your collar felt.

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Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Repeating other people's offensive messages on social networks could end with you having your collar felt. That's according to the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, who says, "You retweet, you commit the offence."

The Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC made clear his stance on retweets during a discussion on the policing of social media, when he was asked, "Is it an offence to retweet something grossly offensive?"

Under section 127 of the Communications Act, a retweet of offensive messages is the same as the original offensive message, and could see you prosecuted accordingly. The Twitter community's unofficial brief David Allen Green, the lawyer in the Twitter Joke Trial and legal correspondent for The New Statesmanexplains the CPS view that, "if a particular tweet means an offence has been committed, the same offence is also committed by someone RTing that tweet."

That doesn't mean however that the police are going to start knocking down the doors of anyone who retweets. The DPP's statement simply rules out as a legal defence the argument that you only retweeted an offensive message rather than originated it.

The DPP added, "I understand the anxiety of the Twitter community. Free speech is very important," clarifying that, "the threshold for criminality must be high." In other words, it seems that prosecution would only be pursued against those who make particularly offensive statements, and/or statements come to the attention of a large public audience.

Even if you retweet something to highlight your opposition to the sentiment rather than to endorse it, you may still be in hot water. But David Allen Green notes that, "Each case will have own facts, and context and intention are important."

For example, some Twitter users have recently taken to retweeting abuse directed at them to highlight the problem of online bullying. Telly curmudgeon Charlie Brooker regularly retweets abuse while removing the name of the person sending the message, while Olympic swimmer Tom Daley's retweet led to the abusive Twitter user being arrested and cautioned by police.

Should the law keep an eye on social networks? When is a message so offensive it's deemed criminal? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.