On Friday afternoon, Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans was sentenced to five years for raping a 19 year old woman.
Almost immediately, the #ChedEvans hashtag appeared on Twitter, and later, #JusticeForChed. Some tweets displayed confusion, questioning why one defendant was found guilty, and one not. Others displayed varying levels of victim blaming; some could only be described as vile.
This continued all weekend. Then, on Sunday, someone named the woman who was apparently the complainant. The insults became more personal, and the levels of abuse directed at the alleged victim increased throughout the day.
Rape survivors fall into a special category of victims of crime, entitled to life long anonymity, applying to the survivor’s name, address, image and any other matter, if the publication could lead to the public identifying the person. A breach occurs if a person causes identifying matter to be published in England and Wales in a written publication available to the public. Whilst this legislation has not been tested when applied to Twitter, courts have found newspaper websites guilty of contempt of court, which, it can be argued, is analogous to this situation.
Several people contacted North Wales police; a spokeswoman for whom said they were collating all the relevant information.
The Director of End Violence Against Women, Holly Dustin, issued a statement saying:
“It has long been law that rape complainants are protected by lifetime anonymity and those who have named her have been reported to the police for committing a criminal offence. This raises serious questions about the adequacy of the criminal justice system to deal with offences that occur online and we are calling for an urgent review of laws and practices.”
Does it? Or actually does this statement simply display a misunderstanding of how law works?
Law isn’t a shield preventing a bad thing happening – it cannot stop people behaving in a certain way; it can only simply prescribe a punishment or remedy should people behave in a certain way. Our modern digital world enables us to see more easily behaviour we knew existed in any event. We have already criminalised that behaviour because we knew it existed.
In addition, the provision for life-long anonymity isn’t the only law which would apply to those tweets – there is the possibility of offences having been committed under section 127 Communications Act 2003, if the tweets can be deemed to be grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character, and under section 4A Public Order Act 1986 if the tweets can be deemed to contain threatening, abusive or insulting words.
While I have every sympathy for the complainant in this case, we really must stop and think about calling for new laws every time something we don’t like happens – especially when the call goes out before the criminal justice system has even had the opportunity to show what it can do in this situation. It really isn’t helpful, and it lessens the remainder of the message.
*** It has been pointed out to me by @Pam_nAshes that the name was first mentioned on Twitter on Friday.