- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 23, 2010

LONDON (AP) - What’s a tweet, between friends? The law says sometimes it’s a threat.

One man thought he was just bantering with his pals when he joked about blowing an airport sky-high. Another was reacting to a radio phone-in when he mused about stoning a journalist to death.

Because they made their throwaway comments on Twitter, both are in legal trouble.

Their cases have outraged civil libertarians and inflamed the debate about the limits of free speech in a Web 2.0 world. The Internet increasingly makes private jokes, tastes and opinions available for public consumption, blurring the line between public and private in a way that has left the law struggling to keep up.

“I think people don’t have any idea of the potential legal ramifications of things they post on the Internet,” said Gregor Pryor, a digital media lawyer at Reed Smith in London. “Anything you post on Twitter can come back and haunt you.”

Paul Chambers found that out with a vengeance. The 27-year-old trainee accountant was convicted and fined after tweeting in January that he’d blow up Robin Hood Airport in northern England if his flight was delayed.

Chambers _ who lost his job and faces several thousand pounds (dollars) in legal costs _ said Monday that he has instructed his lawyers to take his case to the High Court, setting the stage for a major test of free speech online.

“Probably to the detriment of my mental well-being, I am appealing the decision as best I can,” Chambers tweeted Monday.

Chambers is already an online cause celebre. After he lost an appeal earlier this month, thousands of Twitter users repeated his offending message _ “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week … otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!” They added the tag “I Am Spartacus” _ a reference to the 1960 movie epic in which the titular hero’s fellow rebels all assume his identity in a gesture of solidarity.

To many Twittizens, the outrage is obvious _ Chambers was no threat to anyone, just a frustrated traveler blowing off steam.

“It’s worrying,” said Evan Harris, a former British lawmaker and free-speech campaigner. “The judgment seemed to misunderstand that something said across Twitter was not a serious threat. This is not the mode of choice for any suicidal jihadist.”

Twitter, he said, “is like chat in a pub.”

“There is sarcasm in the pub,” he said. “There is sarcasm on Twitter, which is understood by everyone on Twitter _ but not by that judge.”

But others argue that it’s not so simple.

The judge who rejected Chambers‘ appeal, Jacqueline Davies, said that “in the context of the times in which we live,” with an ever-present threat from terrorism, Chambers‘ message was “obviously menacing.”

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