Matthew Woods aged 20 of Chorley appeared at Chorley Magistrates Court where he admitted sending 'a grossly offensive public electronic communication'. He had made a number of offensive posts on Facebook regarding April Jones and also Madeline McCann which were reported to police by a number of members of public who saw them and were sufficiently upset about them to take action.
Mr Woods was sentenced to the maximum that the court could pass, taking into account the fact that they had to give him a third credit for his early guilty plea. Chairman of the Bench of Magistrates, Bill Hudson said that he had passed the maximum sentence possible in the circumstances due to the fact that the postings were so serious and 'abhorrent'. It is not known whether or not Mr Woods gave any consideration to the likely consequences of making these posts (unfortunately in these circumstances it tends not to be the case) however he certainly has got more then he may have bargained for even if he did give the matter some thought. Not only has he been brought before the courts but it is also reported that approximately 50 people went to his home address such was the public feeling regarding his comments. Perhaps luckily for him he was not at that address.
Mr Hudson went onto say "the words and references used to the current case in Wales and that of the missing girl in Portugal are nothing less than shocking, so much so that no right thinking person in society should have communicated to them such fear and distress. The reason for the sentence is the seriousness of the offence, the public outrage that has been caused and we felt there was no other sentence this court could have passed which conveys to you the abhorrent that many in society feel this crime should receive".
The prosecutor Martina Jay said "when interviewed by the police he fully admitted he posted messages about the two missing children". She explained to the court that in his interview Mr Woods had indicated that he had been drinking at a friend's house when he saw a joke on-line and then changed it slightly before posting it on Facebook. "He said he did it in a bid to make people think his account had been hacked. He said it got out of hand". When interviewed by the police Mr Wood did accept that his account had not been hacked and that he was responsible for all the posts.
Mitigating on behalf of Mr Woods, David Edwards said "he did seem genuinely remorseful and regretful for what he had done. At the time he posted these comments not once did he think he would find himself where he is today. He fully accepts that he was the author of his own misfortune".
Those reading our blogs recently will be more than aware of the apparently endless stream of people getting themselves into trouble through their use of social media of one form or another.
If it is of any comfort whatever to Mr Woods he is certainly not the only person to have recently been punished for his use of Facebook. Azhar Ahmed aged 20 of Ravensthorpe in West Yorkshire was found guilty in September of sending a grossly offensive communication as well. He posted an offensive Facebook message following the death of six British soldiers. He, however, was given a Community Order by Huddersfield Magistrates Court, fined £300 and ordered to do 240 hours of unpaid work in the community over the next two years. His Facebook post was reported to police by the mother of one of the six deceased who died on 6 March. Mr Ahmed's message was posted just two days after their deaths.
In sentencing Mr Ahmed, District Judge Jane Goodwin conceded that the law should not stop legitimate political opinions being voiced but said that the test she had to apply was whether what was written was 'beyond the pale of what's tolerable in our society'.
She said "you posted the message in response to tributes and messages of sympathy. You knew at the time that this was an emotive and sensitive issue. With freedom of speech comes responsibility. On 8 March you failed to live up to that responsibility". Some protestors in the public gallery of the court walked out during the District Judge's sentencing comments and one man was detained by police whilst leaving the court after shouting comments at the Judge.
There really can be no excuse for people being unaware of the likely response to inflammatory comments made by way of social media. Although the law has yet to fully get a grip of how to deal with this relatively new phenomenon there have been so many cases which have recently hit the headlines that the consequences must be obvious to the majority of society.
This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.