U.K. Wrestles With Guidelines for Attacks In Social Media

Prosecutor Dismisses One Case Involving Olympic Athlete But Will Study How to Balance Freedom of Speech Against Vicious Posts

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The U.K.'s director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has announced plans to lay down a new set of legal guidelines about social media as the government struggles to balance free speech against allowing vicious attacks on individuals.

The move comes after a man was arrested for malicious, homophobic tweets about Team GB diver Tom Daley and his fellow Olympic Games diver, Peter Waterfield. Daniel Thomas, a semiprofessional soccer player, was released without charge. Mr. Starmer said in a statement that the message in this case wasn't "so grossly offensive that criminal charges should be brought" and that a prosecution was not "in the public interest."

But Mr. Starmer indicated that the proliferation of social media is making life difficult for prosecutors, who struggle with "the task of balancing the fundamental right of free speech and the need to prosecute serious wrongdoing on a case by case basis."

There will be a wide public consultation before the guidelines are published, during which Mr. Starmer will listen to campaigners, media lawyers, academics, social-media experts and law-enforcement bodies to ensure the guidelines are "as fully formed as possible." He said that in order to protect free speech "the threshold for criminal prosecution has to be a high one." He was lenient in this case because Mr. Thomas had intended the message to be humorous and took swift action to remove the message, which he had not intended Mr. Daley to see. Mr. Thomas also expressed remorse and was suspended from his soccer team for his action.

However, the U.K.'s most senior prosecutor added in the statement, "The fact that offensive remarks may not warrant a full criminal prosecution does not necessarily mean that no action should be taken. In my view, the time has come for an informed debate about the boundaries of free speech in an age of social media."

Mr. Starmer said the case is one of a "growing number." "Social media is a new and emerging phenomenon raising difficult issues of principle, which have to be confronted not only by prosecutors, but also by others including the police, the courts and service providers."

In another case, a 53-year-old man was convicted last week of harassment after he set up a Twitter account called @mcelderrytruth, on which he called "X Factor" winner Joe McElderry a "vile hypocrite" and compared him with late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. The man, who also turned up at the singer's house, was fined $1,600 and a five-year restraining order was imposed.

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