Freedom of speech is a myth. You might think that in democratic societies across the world, people are free to hate, love and say whatever they please, but nuances in the law mean that even doing so much as choosing the wrong 140 characters on Twitter can land you in a cold, concrete prison cell. Even if you don’t end up incarcerated, a single Tweet can result in you being unceremoniously sacked or getting trapped in the middle of a veritable legal storm. The lesson is that Twitter is a public medium, and anything you post up can have very real consequences. Here are twelve people who learned that lesson the hard way, probably operating under the apparently idealistic notion that in modern society you are free to convert your thoughts into language.
\#12 Fired for Tweeting Glee spoilers
An extra on the singing, dancing, maniacal-fan-inducing television series Glee, Nicole Crowther, lost her job because she shared something she overheard on set. She was a recurring extra, and the uber-successful series would evidently have served as a vital stepping-stone to her probable goal of playing a poorly-drawn, bland character in a formulaic and ultimately forgettable Hollywood blockbuster. But it wasn’t to be – after she tweeted the spoilers, her producer Brad Falchuk responded “I hope you’re qualified to do something besides work in entertainment.”
\#11 £90k in damages
Lalit Modi is a former chairman of the Indian Premier League of cricket, but he lost £90,000 when he was sued by former New Zealand captain Chris Cairns over something he said on Twitter. His mistake was ultimately forgetting that Twitter is essentially a publication, and libel laws come down hard on unfounded defamatory remarks. The website Cricinfo actually picked up Modi’s accusations that Cairns was match-fixing, but recognised their error, withdrew their story and paid some money to make the problem disappear. Modi believed in himself and argued – a decision that cost him dearly.
\#10 Comedian loses job for tweeting a joke about tsunami
After the 2011 Japanese tsunami – which it goes without saying was an absolute tragedy – American comedian Gilbert Gottfried lost has cushy job as the voice of a talking duck on an advertisement for making some jokes. They weren’t particularly amusing, granted, but it seems like if it’s anybody’s job to at least try and make people laugh in the face of a tragedy, it’s a comedian’s. He said “Japan is really advanced. They don’t go to the beach. The beach comes to them,” amongst other (even less funny) jokes. Problem is, he was working for a company who did the majority of their business in Japan, whose population understandably weren’t in the mood for mindless one-liners.
\#9 Social media strategist posts from wrong account. Fired.
Social media is so important these days that people like Scott Bartosiewicz get paid to control company accounts. He worked for New Media Strategies, who were hired by Chrysler, amongst others, to make them look good on Twitter. But juggling multiple accounts was obviously outside of Bartosiewicz’s skill set, since he said “I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f*cking drive” on Twitter under the impression it was from his personal account. It wasn’t. He lost his job at New Media Strategies, but they also lost their contract with Chrysler. He didn’t just harm his own income; he also took a huge client from the entire organisation.
\#8 Threatening to blow up Robin Hood Airport
If there’s one thing serious airport-bombing terrorists all have in common, it’s that they don’t announce their plans on a massive, immensely popular public outlet. Paul Chambers probably thought that he wouldn’t have been taken seriously for that reason, but he underestimated the paranoia potential terrorist attacks are treated with. He threatened to blow Robin Hood Airport (near Doncaster) “sky high,” if his flight (which was a week away) was delayed. Two days before he was due to leave he was arrested. He was fined, and commented later on Twitter that the criminal record “has jeopardised my career. Punishment not befitting the ‘crime.’”
\#7 56 days in prison for “racially aggravated comments”
Liam Stacey was drunk. Watching the football as Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch during a match. He tweeted “LOL, **** Muamba. He’s dead!!!” and immediately received a torrent of abuse. He responded to other Twitter users with racist language, telling someone to “go pick some cotton.” Of course, if this was intended seriously it would be horrendous, but the fact that he broke down in tears after he was sentenced points to the obvious truth that it was just a stupid, drunken comment that wasn’t intended seriously. Unless he thought that the slave trade and the age of “cotton-pickers” was (or should be) alive and well, that is.
\#6 N-word = “malicious communication”
Sammy Ameobi posted a picture of some new black trainers he had, and a Twitter user left a short comment, “Your hand is nearly the same colour. N*.” Ameobi responded appropriately, by re-tweeting the comment and bemoaning the fact that people are still racist in the modern world. Newcastle United, on the other hand, responded by telling the police and getting two people arrested “on suspicion of a malicious communication.” It seems like “idiotic” communication would have been a better description, however.
\#5 Threatening a copycat mass murder isn’t funny
Alphen, in the Netherlands, had just experienced a mass shooting which left six people dead. In this psychological climate, a 17 year old (unnamed) posted, “Haha Iraq is also coming to the Netherlands. This man in Alphen already has 6 kills on his name. I'm going to outdo him.” There was a Twitter backlash, and then he deleted the tweet and wrote “it was only a f** joke.” Nobody seemed to get it (things look serious in plain black and white, despite the “haha”), and he was arrested the next day.
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\#4 Mistaken bomb threat gets 16 year old arrested
An Australian teenager got himself arrested by failing to adequately convey his reference to a Pink song, tweeting “@Pink I'm ready with my Bomb. Time to blow up #RodLaverArena. B****.” This was a reference to her song “Timebomb,” which was roundly misunderstood (fairly understandably, given the actual content of the tweet) by concert staff, who apprehended him based on his profile picture and turned him over to the police.
\#3 Revealing police whereabouts during a protest
41 year old Elliot Madison from Pittsburgh was arrested for tweeting something that anybody with functioning eyes would have been able to find out if they were in a specific location. During a protest in 2009, he tweeted the police’s location. Of course, this means that unlawful protesters would be able to avoid the law, but it’s also far from classified information. It seems unusual that had he simply ran/drove/caught a bus to the protest and told them personally he’d have probably escaped arrest for essentially the same act. Posting something on Twitter is evidently very, very different from saying something out loud (it makes it more likely you’ll get caught), but in this case either is equally illegal.
\#2 Insinuating posthumous parental disappointment can get you arrested
A 17 year old was arrested during the London Olympics for a tweet he sent to British diver Tom Daley. Daley had finished fourth, and the tweeter said, “@Tomdaley1994 You let your dad down i hope you know that” in reference to the diver’s late father. Things got a little more out of hand (the offender, @rileyy69, apparently threatened to shoot some other tweeters’ birds…), but the event ultimately led to his arrest. The police proudly tweeted that they’d arrested him, linking to his username in the message.
\#1 Encouraging withdrawals from a bank is “inciting financial panic”
The tweet read, “First concrete action should be remove cash from Banrural and bankrupt the bank of the corrupt.” This was Guatemalan Jean Fernandez’s way of saying that the people should withdraw their money from a bank which was at the centre of a controversy. The state-run Banrural bank was intricately involved with a scandal, in which the president of Guatemala had allegedly been involved with the murder of an attorney who exposed the bank’s fraudulent practices. In this situation, the tweet is wholly understandable. The law disagreed, ruling it “inciting financial panic,” putting him under house arrest and fining him more than the average annual income in the country.