Those who peddle hatred and abuse online face prosecution

Thos who use the internet to peddle hatred, abuse or to harass and blackmail others will not evade prosecution for their crimes.

That is the message this week from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) which has this week launched written policy guidance on communications sent via social media to provide clarity on when such communications will amount to criminal conduct.

While the Lord Advocate has previously explained where the legal boundary lies, particularly in the run up to the Independence Referendum, it has now chosen to publish its guidance this week to ensure there is absolute clarity in its approach.

Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland QC said he wants to take the opportunity to reassure the public that the Crown Office take these offences as seriously as crimes committed in person.

He said that a ‘robust’ approach is and will continue to be taken in Scotland to communications posted via social media if they are criminal in content, in the same way as such communications uttered or published in the non-virtual world would be handled.

The Crown Office added that there is no danger to freedom of speech, and it will not be prosecuting people for satirical comments, offensive humour or provocative statements.

As with any other offence, prosecutors may only instigate criminal proceedings where there is sufficient credible and reliable evidence and it is in the public interest to do so. Speaking following the publication of the social media guidance, the Lord Advocate said: “The rule of thumb is simple - if it would be illegal to say it on the street, it is illegal to say it online.

“Those who use the internet to peddle hate or abuse, to harass, to blackmail, or any other number of crimes, need to know that they cannot evade justice simply by hiding behind their computers or mobile phones.

“I hope this serves as a wake up call to them.

“As prosecutors we will continue to do all in our power to bring those who commit these crimes to justice, and I would encourage anyone who thinks they have been victim of such a crime to report it to the Police.”

The four main categories of behaviour that prosecutors will distinguish between are:

1. Communications which specifically target an individual or group of individuals in particular communications which are considered to be hate crime, domestic abuse, or stalking.

2. Communications which may constitute credible threats of violence to the person, damage to property or to incite public disorder

3. Communications which may amount to a breach of a court order or contravene legislation making it a criminal offence to release or publish information relating to proceedings.

4. Communications which do not fall into categories 1,2 or 3 above but are nonetheless considered to be grossly offensive, indecent or obscene or involve false information about an individual or group.