Belfast Telegraph

Ex-soldier wins appeal on 'shoot peelers' Facebook post

BY CHRIS KILPATRICK

A former soldier who admitted posting on Facebook about "shooting peelers" during heightened tensions surrounding flag protests has walked free from court.

Samuel Ian Hill (24), with an address in Portadown, appeared at a court in Lisburn yesterday.

He was previously convicted of one charge of sending a message deemed grossly offensive, obscene or of menacing character and fined £200 in relation to the message on the social media site.

He appeared in court again yesterday to appeal the conviction and sentencing which were handed down to him in July.

A prosecutor said that during an online discussion, Hill posted "start shooting peelers" among other comments.

The prosecutor told the court the comment was posted from Hill's Facebook account on a page entitled 'Friends of Willie Frazer'.

The site had been set up in the name of the victims' campaigner during protests over the restricting of the number of the days the Union flag is flown over Belfast City Hall, the court was told.

However, Mr Frazer was in no way connected to the comment on the site set up in his name.

A defence lawyer for Hill said his client did not dispute posting the "unpleasant" message but denied it was menacing in character.

He said the online conversation was after 2am, and his client was "drunk and frustrated".

The lawyer argued that "those reading it (the Facebook post) were not likely to be menaced by it" saying it was an exchange between Hill and another Facebook user.

He said the statement was "unpleasant and unedifying" but said the comment was in no way a specific threat to police.

Defence for Hill said his client had posted the message in his own name as opposed to using another identity or "guile" to disguise who he was.

He referred to a similar case last year when a man found guilty of sending a menacing tweet threatening to blow up an airport won a challenge to his conviction.

Paul Chambers (29), who had an address in Northern Ireland, was found guilty in May 2010 of sending a "menacing electronic communication".

He was living in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, when he tweeted that he would blow up nearby Robin Hood Airport when it closed after heavy snow.

After a hearing at the High Court in London his conviction was quashed.

Mr Chambers said later: "I am relieved, vindicated – it is ridiculous it ever got this far."

The appeal was all about whether Paul Chambers' tweet, made in frustration that Robin Hood airport was closed, and threatening to blow it up if the problem wasn't sorted out, was a 'menacing' message and therefore criminal.

The Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, Mr Justice Owen and Mr Justice Griffith Williams, said: "If the person or persons who receive or read it, (the message) or may reasonably be expected to receive, or read it, would brush it aside as a silly joke, or a joke in bad taste, or empty bombastic or ridiculous banter, then it would be a contradiction in terms to describe it as a message of a menacing character."

Yesterday's court was told police had been monitoring the site and others throughout the course of the flag protests.

They spoke to Hill at his home and seized his mobile phone just hours after the message had been posted online.

BACKGROUND

Several weeks of loyalist protests followed Belfast City Council's vote to limit the flying of the Union flag from City Hall. Around 150 police officers were injured in widespread disorder associated with a number of the protests. Over 200 people have been arrested since the trouble with the bill for policing the protests exceeding £20m.

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