Twitter has been legally forced to hand over messages sent by the Occupy Wall Street protester Malcolm Harris. The messages had to be given to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office by September 14th, otherwise Twitter would have been in contempt of court and be facing substantial fines.
The DA’s Office believe that the messages posted by Mr Harris undermine his claim that New York police led protesters on to the Brooklyn Bridge, so that they could be arrested for obstructing traffic. It claims that the information and tweets handed over by Twitter will prove that Mr Harris was aware of police orders that he then disregarded.
If we put the opinions and political motivations behind both sides of this case to one side for a moment, we are left with legal precedent that whatever you say on a social network is tied to you, and you can be held accountable for those posts. Once you say something on a social network, even if it was a fleeting comment posted in the heat of the moment, it is then in the public domain, and you are accountable for that comment.
Another example of this can be found in last week’s news, when Azhar Ahmed was found guilty of posting an offensive message on Facebook. Again, irrespective of what was said and whether or not he should have said it (or even thought it), the case further underlines the point that you can be held legally accountable for whatever you say online.
In the case of Malcolm Harris, the court won’t be inspecting any of the data supplied by Twitter until an appeal from his lawyers is heard. As we have also seen, even tongue in cheek remarks can cause legal problems – just ask Paul Chambers who was found guilty of sending a menacing tweet. Even though he was eventually successful in overturning his conviction, he still had to endure a legal battle that lasted almost two years.
People are apparently no longer safe behind their keyboards, so maybe it’s worth thinking twice before saying something, and also thinking about where you are saying it.