Social media not exempt

Police could lay charges against anyone using social media to name the person they believe is involved in the alleged abduction of a Timaru boy, Canterbury University law professor Ursula Cheer believes.

Her comments follow confirmation Timaru police have received a complaint alleging an interim suppression order, made by district court judge Joanna Maze earlier this week, has been breached in social media.

Judge Maze suppressed details identifying the 26-year-old man charged in relation to the incident, but comments claiming to identify him and making threats against him, appeared on social media within hours of his court appearance.

It is a crime to knowingly or recklessly publish material that a judge has suppressed, and Ms Cheer said making that information available in any social media would equate to "publishing" it.

Blogger Cameron Slater is the only person to have been fined for such breaches involving social media in New Zealand. In 2010 he was found guilty of eight counts of breaching name suppression orders and one count of identifying a victim in a sex case on his Whale Oil blog. He was charged under the previous legislation which had maximum fines of $1000. Slater was fined $750 on each charge as well as $130 court costs on each.

The new legislation under which any charges will now be laid, provides for an individual who knowingly or recklessly breaches an order to receive a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment, while all other breaches carry a maximum fine of $25,000.

Ms Cheer said it had been hoped the Slater case would make people realise they could not say what they liked on social media. "Sometimes to emphasise these things you have to have more than one [court] decision to make it clear to people.

"How serious it is, is reflected in the penalty. Fines can be up to that amount, but you would probably treat someone who was just being a bit silly online and followed the herd without really thinking, as not being such a serious offender as someone who said ‘I know it has been suppressed, but I am going to publish it anyway and everyone should know about this'."

The Timaru Herald