On 20th April 2012, footballer Ched Evans was sentenced to custody at Caernarfon Crown Court for raping a woman in a hotel room.
On 5th November 2012, nine people were convicted at Prestatyn Magistrates’ Court for an offence connected to Evans’ rape that they did not realise was a criminal offence.
The crime of these nine people, seven men and three women aged between 18 and 27 from north Wales and Sheffield, was that they published material likely to lead members of the public to identify the complainant in a rape case, contrary to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992. Section 1 of the Act states that where there is an allegation of a sexual offence (such as rape in this case) and the name, address, picture or video of the complainant is published in a “written publication available to the public”, it is an offence if this publication is likely to lead members of the public to identify that alleged victim.
These nine people were not journalists or members of the press. They were members of the public who aired their comments on a Social Network site, Twitter. As of 2012, Twitter has over 500 million active users with over 340 million tweets daily and over 1.6 billion search queries per day. It is one of the top 10 most visited websites on the internet, which can be read by even unregistered users.
Out of the nine defendants, one simply “re-tweeted” a comment containing the complainant’s name (this is where you copy a previous comment to your own feed) and the other eight named her in comments, some of which included their own opinions. Some of the defendants were connected to Evans, while some were fans of his football club, Sheffield United, airing their frustrations that their team had lost a player.
What the defendants didn’t seem to appreciate when making their comments or re-tweets was that their comments could potentially be viewed by millions of users, in addition to further millions of unregistered users. If their comments referred to any popular search term relating to Evans’ original case, such as “Sheffield United” or “Ched Evans”, then their tweets would be easily found and would “go viral”.
Once the defendants’ comments had been seen by any other Twitter users, the element of the offence of details of the complainant being contained in “written publication available to the public” had been made out, due to the nature of comments posted on Twitter.
Section 5 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 details the punishment and defences for the offence committed by the defendants. This offence is fineable only; however, the Court may use its discretion when awarding compensation to the complainant of an amount up to £5,000 in the Magistrates’ Court, depending on the defendants’ means. The defendants have been each ordered to pay £624 compensation to the complainant in this case.
Defences to this offence, not applicable for the nine convicted defendants who each pleaded guilty, include having the written consent of the complainant to publish the details or being unaware that their publication included details of the matter in question.
The nine defendants have learned that ignorance of the law is no defence. They have also learned that comments on Twitter are forms of publication, despite if they have posted them during an “act of utter stupidity” as one defendant has described his actions in open Court.