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Writing Emails and Letters

Contents

  1. Introduction to the legislation

  2. Malicious Communications Act 1988, Section 1

     a) Interpretation
     b) A message which is indecent or grossly offensive
     c) A threat
     d) Information which is false and known to be false by the sender
     e) Purpose
     f) The Statutory defence
     g) Penalties
     h) Further Notes
     i) Questons and answers on the Malicious Communications Act 1988

  3. Sections 2 and 4 Protection from Harassment Act 1997

    a) Section 2 Protection from Harassment Act 1997
    b) Section 4 Protection from Harassment Act 1997
    c) Points to Note on Sections 2 and 4

  4. Public Order Act 1986

1. Introduction to the Legislation

There are two main pieces of legislation to be aware of when sending emails and letters. These are the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.

2. Malicious Communications Act 1988 Section 1

Section 1 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 states the following:

1 Offence of sending letters etc with intent to cause distress or anxiety

(1) Any person who sends to another person—

(a) a letter, electronic communication or article of any description which conveys—

(i) a message which is indecent or grossly offensive;
(ii) a threat; or
(iii) information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender; or

(b) any article or electronic communication which is, in whole or part, of an indecent or grossly offensive nature,

is guilty of an offence if his purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should, so far as falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above, cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated.

2.a Interpretation

Looking at Section 1 above you can see that the offence breaks down in to two parts.

Firstly you have to send a letter, electronic communication, or article which conveys one of three things namely

Secondly your purpose, or one of your purposes, in sending it is that it should cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to anyone else to whom you intend that the contents be communicated. We will look at each part in turn.

2.b A message which is indecent or grossly offensive

2.c A threat

Example 1:“I find your work disgusting and think you should stop it right now”

This is not a threat –The recipient may be caused distress or anxiety by the letter, and the writer may even have intended this, but there is no sense in which the writer is saying that anything bad will happen to the recipient. S/he is merely stating their opinion about what they think of the worker’s job.

Example 2: “Stop working at the lab or we will hold a demo outside it”.

Here the writer is stating that they will do something of detriment to the worker - a protest outside the lab - unless their demands are met. So this could be construed as a threat, but even this is a borderline case. If you make it clear the demonstration will be peaceful, then it will be hard for magistrates to construe it as a threat. You are merely stating that if the worker continues to work there, you will exercise your right to protest peacefully at their workplace.

Example 3: “Stop working at the lab, or we will come and demonstrate at your house”.

This is clearly a threat as in example 2 and the sender would probably be convicted for making such a threat, as no magistrate would regard a demonstration at someone’s home as a reasonable or lawful form of protest.

Example 4: A worker is sent a wreath or a coffin.

2.d Information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender

Examples of how you could intend distress / anxiety by giving false information would be:

i) writing in an email to someone, expressing disgust at what they do for a living, but giving the name and address of one of their neighbours. In this situation, the recipient could argue they were caused distress at the thought of being disliked by a neighbour, ie by the giving of their false details;

ii) sending a letter from the hospital informing the recipient they have cancer - an obvious example of sending false information with the intent of causing anxiety.

2.e Purpose

To be guilty of an offence under Section 1, the law also states that the sender’s purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should … cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated

2.f The Statutory Defence

Section 2 of the Malicious Communications Act 1988 provides a defence to a charge made under Section 1 that you have sent a message conveying a threat. It reads as follows:

(2) A person is not guilty of an offence by virtue of subsection (1)(a)(ii) above if he shows—

(a) that the threat was used to reinforce a demand [made by him on reasonable grounds]; and

(b) that he believed[, and had reasonable grounds for believing,] that the use of the threat was a proper means of reinforcing the demand.

2.g Penalties

An offence under Section 1 is triable summarily (in the magistrates court) only, and is punishable by up to 6 months imprisonment. An offence committed under this section is not an arrestable offence.

2.h Further Notes

2.i Questions & Answers on the Malicious Communications Act 1988

Q: Is sending someone a book on 'death' or arranged for them to receive wreath a threat?
A: Looking at Section 1 (1) (a), it states that an offence is committed by anyone who sends a message letter, electronic communication or article of any description which conveys a threat. So if you sent someone a book on death or a wreath, a court could infer that a threat was conveyed by that article.

Q: How does the law stand on sending emails to people abroad, especially if they work for a company based in the UK (or with subsidiaries in the UK)? What about sending messages from outside of the UK?
A: The offence doesn't require a "victim". The prosecution only need to show that you sent the threat etc with intent to cause anxiety or distress. So the complete offence is committed as soon as you post the letter or send the e-mail. So you could be liable for sending letters anywhere in the world. But if you sent the letter from say Germany to the UK, then it would be out of UK jurisdiction as the whole offence had already been committed outside of the UK.

Q: Is there a distinction between sending emails to distinct individuals in a company or to a generic email address for the company; for example: between an email to john.smith@scumcompany.com or sales@scumcompany.com?
A: The law is not entirely clear on this. S1(1) states the offence is committed by a person sending to another person. So this suggests that you can't commit the offence by writing to "sales@ukorg.huntingdon.com". But a court might infer that your purpose in sending the letter would be that another person receives it at the other end. And so long as you intend that this recipient or any other person to whom you intend it is to be communicated is caused distress, then the offence is committed. So you probably do not need to have a specific recipient in mind, so long as you intend that whoever receives the email is caused anxiety or distress.

Q: What about the legality of not giving any contact details for yourself?
A: It would depend on the context of the communication. It might help the police to build a case against you if you were accused of sending a threat. If the content of the message was a borderline case – for example a threat to protest at the recipient’s place of work - then its anonymity might make it threatening enough to tip the scales against you. But sending an anonymous communiqué in itself would not, in our view, be enough to constitute a threat. Anonymity wouldn't make any difference if you were charged under either of the other 'limbs' of the act - sending false information or a grossly indecent message.

Q: If I sent a non-threatening message, but did not use my real details, would this be an offence?
A: Looking at the text of Section 1, it states that you can only be guilty if one of your purposes IN SENDING the false information is to cause distress or anxiety. So in other words a court would have to be satisfied that you intended the recipient would be caused distress or anxiety by the act of your giving them a false name and address. So if you just gave a made up name, that in itself would not be sufficient to cause them distress.

So an example of how you could intend distress / anxiety by giving a false name would be if you wrote an email to someone saying how disgusted you were with what they do for a living, but giving the name and address of one of their neighbours. In this situation, the recipient could argue they were caused distress at the thought of being disliked by a neighbour, ie by your giving false details.

Q: Does the section about using false information cover using someone else's details without their permssion?
A: If you pretended to write to Brian Cass as the Chief Executive of Novartis announcing your withdrawal of business, then this would clearly be giving false information with intent to cause anxiety or distress. We doubt that even if you had Novartis' permission (!) it would make any difference. But say you wrote a fairly innocuous letter to a HLS worker depending to be from a neighbour - eg asking for more information about HLS. In this case, it would be hard to make a case against you for intending to cause anxiety or distress by giving false information. It just depends on the content of the letter. See also the above question.

Q: What about the legality of using anonymous internet email and fax services? That is, can the police, etc factor in that someone attempted to use an anonymous service (eg a remailer), as part of the offence being committed. In other words, is the method of communication part of the crime?
A: Anonymity in itself is not a crime, whether that is effected using an anonymous remailer or by withholding your address in a letter. However, if the content of the communication was on the borderlines of free speech and illegal threats, then the fact, say, that you were emailing from a web based internet account using false details would not help you - suggesting that you were aware that you were sending threats and were attempting to cover your tracks. But setting up such an account up could in no way in itself constitute an "attempt" to commit an offence under section 1.

NB - to be liable for any criminal "attempt" you must have taken steps which are "more than merely preparatory" to carrying out the offence. Although the law is a bit vague on this, setting up a false email account would simply be a preparatory step to carrying out the act.

If you have any further questions about the application of this act, please feel free to send use an email (info@freebeagles.org), and we will endeavour to answer it for you. If we do not respond immediately, please be patient.

3. Sections 2 and 4 Protection from Harassment Act 1997

Section 2 of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 makes it an offence to pursue a course of conduct which causes another person harassment, alarm or distress. Section 4 of the Act makes it an offence to pursue a course of conduct which puts another in fear of violence.

3.a Section 2 Protection from Harassment Act 1997

3.b Section 4 Protection from Harassment Act 1997

3.c Points to Note on Sections 2 and 4

4. Public Order Act 1986

You cannot be prosecuted under Sections 4, 4A or 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 for writing threatening letters or emails, as the threat is not immediate enough

 


This article is for information purposes only; its aim is to let people to know their full rights under UK law. Nothing on these pages is absolute as the law is always changing; if in doubt contact a trusted solicitor for further advice. We do not encourage you to break the law.

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© Copyright freeB.E.A.G.L.E.S.; last updated: November 2003