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Watch what you tweet: CPS promises to crack down on social media hate crime

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But lawyers have concerns

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) launched a campaign on hate crime today, promising to “treat online crime as seriously as offline offences”.

Prosecutors have put out new public statements on how they approach crimes motivated by “hostility or prejudice” against the victim because of their disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity, as well as updating the official legal guidance on hate crime prosecutions.

Announcing the campaign, director of public prosecutions Alison Saunders specifically mentioned the aristocrat — Rhodri Phillips, 4th Viscount St Davids — who was jailed over menacing Facebook posts about Brexit campaigner Gina Miller. Reports of hate crime rose sharply in the aftermath of the EU referendum.

There are specific hate crime offences, such as stirring up racial hatred, but prosecutors can also ask for a stiffer sentence following almost any crime if they can show that it involved hostility or prejudice against, for example, gay people.

The CPS’s hardening line may result in stiffer sentences for hate crime perpetrators, both on and offline. Saunders revealed today that prosecutors successfully applied for a sentencing uplift in over half of hate crime cases last year — up from just 4% a few years ago.

Saunders acknowledged that some people might find the new guidance on online behaviour “heavy-handed”. She’s not wrong there:

But Labour MP Luciana Berger, herself the victim of anti-Semitic abuse, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that threats and abuse have “as much impact… online as it would have physically, in person”.

Other lawyers applauded the campaign’s aim, but worried that the criminal justice system won’t be able to handle an increase in hate crime work.

And there were even questions about whether the CPS’s own rules will get in the way:

The authorities say that they’ll “prosecute complaints of hate crime online with the same robust and proactive approach used with offline offending”. And they suggest that “amplifiers or disseminators” of criminal social media — such as retweeters, we’d suggest — might be targeted, as well as “originators”.

Younger people may be treated more leniently, though: the CPS says it understands that “children may not appreciate the potential harm and seriousness of their communications”.

As the CPS points out, not all online bullying, even if based on the likes of race or disability, will amount to a hate crime. But social media stupidity doesn’t have to cross the line into criminal offending for it to mess up your career prospects — Legal Cheek reported just last week that solicitor Majid Mahood was suspended for a year after regulators were told about anti-Semitic Facebook posts.

Even members of the judiciary aren’t immune to the lure of an anonymous rant: Jason Dunn-Shaw was sacked from Canterbury Crown Court last year after taking the fight to online critics of his decisions.

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