Why children should have lessons in contempt of court and libel

A couple of regional newspaper journalists have called for children to be taught about contempt of court. They are concerned that young social media users are unaware of the legal restrictions about what can, and cannot, be written once proceedings become “active”.

The alarm was initially raised by the Liverpool Echo’s crime reporter, Joe Thomas, who was worried by the potential jeopardising of the prosecutions of six people charged in relation to the Hillsborough football disaster.

His warning, “Do not give suspects chance to claim they can't have a fair trial”, prompted an Echo colleague, the paper’s night editor, Tom Evans, to put contempt of court on the school curriculum. “We’re all journalists now”, wrote Evans, “so our kids need to be taught the rules”.

His idea was supported by Huddersfield Daily Examiner reporter Susie Beever. She argued that in a world where everyone likes to think of themselves as a journalist there is a need for them to know what journalists know about the law.

In other words, as well as contempt of court, they also need to know about libel and copyright, and possibly data protection as well. 

These calls to introduce legal lessons in order to instil our youth with good online behaviour strike me as sensible. After all, going on what I often read on Twitter and Facebook, they cannot depend on their parents to act as social media role models. 

In recent years, it has been adults who have been responsible for online law-breaking quite apart from posting grossly insulting and offensive comments about individuals. What was once confined to private conversations is now routinely made public. 

Beever has witnessed the result of such thoughtless interventions. “I’ve only been a journalist for four years”, she wrote, “but already I’ve seen countless people in the dock and even put behind bars because of something they’ve said online”. 

Oddly, people seem to believe they can say what they like without any regard for the law. Some, presumably, are ignorant. They overstep the mark because they do not realise a mark exists. 

Others take the risk in the mistaken belief that they will be able to hide amid internet anarchy. If so, they should note the increasing number of prosecutions of online law-breakers. 

Four years ago, the UK government showed that it was aware of the likelihood of social media users making prejudicial comments which were likely to force trials to be abandoned. 

The then attorney general, Dominic Grieve – one of the most far-sighted of attorneys general who also prosecuted newspapers for breaches of contempt of court – rose to the challenge. 

In December 2013, he decided to make public the kind of advisory notices about high-profile trials that had previously been issued only to print and broadcast media organisations on a confidential basis. They were posted on the government’s website. 

By sharing those warnings to avoid risks of prejudice he was acknowledging the reality of the new media landscape. Opinion was supplanting fact and people airing their views without a sufficient grasp of the law could be guilty of contempt. 

Grieve said at the time: "In days gone by, it was only the mainstream media that had the opportunity to bring information relating to a court case to such a large group of people that it could put a court case at risk.

"That is no longer the case… This is not about telling people what they can or cannot talk about on social media; quite the opposite in fact – it's designed to help facilitate commentary in a lawful way.

"I hope that by making this information available to the public at large, we can help stop people from inadvertently breaking the law, and make sure that cases are tried on the evidence, not what people have found online”.

It is doubtful, of course, that many Tweeters and Facebookers have since consulted these advisory notices. But Grieve was beginning what should be seen as a prelude to the kind of legal educational course suggested by Tom Evans and Susie Beever.

Indeed, Grieve said as much to The Guardian: "As social media gathers pace, I think schools may be well advised to provide a lesson about the responsibility of users – not just in relation to libel or contempt".

Children are not, as it happens, noted for their use of Twitter and Facebook, which are largely regarded as adult platforms. But that doesn’t negate the use value of educating children about laws that affect what they do say on other online outlets and, of course, what they will say in future.

If everyone is a journalist, then they should understand why journalists – with one or two notable exceptions – don’t upload their every random angry thought, most especially about active court cases.

Sensitivity about stimulating illegal comments has persuaded some newspapers, including Beever’s paper, not to post stories about ongoing court cases to their Facebook pages.

A denial of free speech? A threat to press freedom? I don’t think so. At this relatively early stage in the process of the digital revolution, it is important to avoid undue risk.

Mainstream media, so often the butt of online criticism, has much to teach those who affect to scorn it. Educating children about the laws that affect journalists is therefore sensible.

Evans makes a good point in stressing that children already need to know things the pre-internet generations never had to deal with, such as avoiding online groomers and phishers. It isn’t much of a stretch to add lessons in libel and contempt of court.

*The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not IPSO*