Kangaroo courts vs criminal courts
Another day, another Contempt of Court fiasco on an Isle of Man Facebook page – this time over a drink drive case. I’m not linking to the offending post.
As a journalist, I’m horrified and it’s not quite for the reason you might think.
A Facebook post on a page I’ve written about before is actively soliciting public comments on a report it’s run about someone accused of drink-driving.
The case is current, active and features a defendant a lot of people have heard about – who supports causes people often disagree about.
A simple explanation of Contempt
I know this is also something I’ve written about before, but here’s the thing:
You commit Contempt of Court if you create a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing a trial.
If that sounds a bit airy-fairy, let’s put it like this: if anything you publish might influence a juror (who’s only supposed to consider a case on its facts) then you’re in contempt.
Or, more simply: if you ask people to comment on an ongoing case and they say stuff that might make a juror think they’re guilty (or not guilty, though that’s rarer), you’re running a high risk of legal trouble.
It wasn’t me!
A court’s not interested in “it’s Facebook’s page, not mine” – or that the almost-inevitable comments you invited were written by other people. You asked for them and published them, failing to ensure they were legally safe.
And Facebook’s terms and conditions (which you’ll have accepted when you signed up) pretty much absolve them of any criminal acts you commit on it.
As if that weren’t enough, the penalties for contempt are enormous. Up to a lot of instant jail time, potentially ruinous fines.
O, the hypocrisy!
Consider the ethics. Singling somebody out to be prejudged before they’ve stood trial defies the very idea of a fair society.
Most social media critics/trolls in the Isle of Man like to hold themselves up as beacons of decency, democracy and righteousness when they talk about the government bending, breaking or inventing the rules.
But when it comes to allowing the justice system to give someone a fair trial rather than stirring up moral outrage over what is still only an allegation, some seem to giggle about their traffic figures as they hand out pitchforks.
A fair court hearing without online vigilantism is surely the least we, as a civilized and democratic society, can afford each other?
The legal has landed
OK, so it may not be heard before a jury, and the judiciary is assumed to be capable of ignoring outside influences, so you may not end up being charged.
It’ll also depend on your audience. The more people, the more likely a juror’s seen it. If it’s thousands of people, well… it obviously becomes a bigger issue.
And even if you’re not charged, if an advocate complains to the police you can still expect a visit from police who’ll need you to answer some questions.
I’ve seen it happen twice on the Isle of Man.
It wasn’t me (part two)
Meanwhile, what if you’re one of those who actually posted a comment on Facebook?
Well, that may depend on what and who the advocate complains about. If it’s your comment and you’re named when it’s reported to the police, you’ll probably be questioned (possibly under caution) about it.
Or would whoever runs the page point the police straight to you if they themselves faced prosecution?
You could be facing criminal investigation for your remarks, too.
The trouble with journalism
I think some press regulation is a good thing. Journalists can’t identify children in court cases, can’t identify the victims of sexual offences and can’t take photographs of people who are somewhere they should expect a reasonable degree of privacy.
Most would, I think, agree these are responsible and reasonable laws.
Some people feel differently, over issues such as privacy or censorship.
However you feel, the fact remains: people who claim a “right to freedom of speech” probably picked up the phrase from US movies or websites. It’s the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
We are in a different country – one that has no constitution, let alone amendments, let alone guaranteed rights. One with a different legal system, with different laws. Some of those laws are frustratingly obtuse, while others seem reasonable.
You learn about the important ones when you train as a journalist. But you only really become a journalist when you learn why they’re important.
That’s why when someone flouts the law, we look on in horror.
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