UK court sends message: tweeted threats will land you in jail

A British man who tweeted threats to a member of Parliament over her support for putting Jane Austen on the 10-pound banknote will serve 18 weeks in jail. The judge said his 'campaign of hatred' caused the MP to feel deeply threatened. 

Pool/Reuters/File
From left, Conservative member of Parliament Mary Macleod, Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, Labour and Co-operative member of Parliament Stella Creasy and feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez displayed the design for the new 10-pound banknote, featuring British novelist Jane Austen, last year at the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, England.

While Jane Austen has become the new face of Britain's £10 note, a British man who tweeted threats to express his outrage over that choice has become a poster child for the seriousness with which the courts are confronting such speech.

On Monday, a London judge sentenced Peter Nunn to 18 weeks in jail for threatening via Twitter to rape Stella Creasy, a member of Parliament who backed the campaign last summer to put the 19th-century author on the banknote. Mr. Nunn also branded her a “witch” in his barrage of abusive tweets.

Nunn launched what the prosecution called a “campaign of hatred” after the Bank of England decided to replace Charles Darwin's image with Austen's, the Guardian reported, a choice that sparked heated and often hostile debate.

But Nunn’s guilty verdict may serve as a cautionary note to Internet trolls across the United Kingdom — and as sign of hope for victims of online threats. “Today’s sentence for Peter Nunn is a step forward in recognizing the distress and fear online harassment can cause,” Ms. Creasy said, according to reports in British media.

“We now need to ensure our police and criminal justice services are better trained to identify the risks anyone receiving threats faces, whether these are made on or offline so that we can protect those being stalked. Above all, we need to send a clear message that it isn’t for anyone to put up with being harassed via any medium — this is an old crime taking a new form online and should be treated as such.”

District Judge Elizabeth Roscoe found Nunn guilty of sending indecent, obscene, and menacing messages after his trial earlier this month at the City of London Magistrates’ Court, which handles low-level criminal cases. In addition to the jail sentence — which began Monday —the judge also imposed a restraining order on Nunn, banning him from contacting Creasy or feminist activist Caroline Criado-Perez, the Guardian reported. Ms. Criado-Perez, who launched the Jane Austen campaign, also received online threats for pushing to keep a woman on a British bank note.

The Guardian reported that the Twitter messages from Nunn deeply disturbed Creasy, leading her to install a panic button in her home. Prosecutor Alison Morgan told the paper that Creasy felt “increasing concern that individuals were seeking not only to cause her distress but also to cause her real harm which led her to fear for her own safety.”

Nunn’s lawyer told the court he felt great remorse for the stress he had caused, the BBC reported. But the judge said Nunn had appeared “evasive” during the trial.

Nunn’s sentence is the third handed down in the currency decision. Earlier this year, Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo were sentenced to 12 weeks and eight weeks, respectively, for making similar threats to Creasy and Criado-Perez on social media, the UK Criminal Law Blog reported.

The author of the Law Blog was unsurprised by Nunn’s longer sentence because of the nature of the offense and the seriousness with which social media cases are treated. The Crown Prosecution Service released  a set of comprehensive prosecution guidelines in late 2012 following a series of high-profile cases involving Twitter and Facebook – of which Nunn’s case was simply the latest. 

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