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England and Wales: Social Media and Naming Rape Victims

(May 16, 2012) It was reported on April 24, 2012, that 12 people across England and Wales have been arrested for allegedly both naming and harassing by means of social media a victim of rape, following the conviction of Sheffield United Football Club's Ched Evans. (Ched Evans: Rape Case Twitter Arrests Warning by Police, BBC NEWS, (Apr. 24, 2012); Helen Carter, Ched Evans Rape Case: Nine More People Arrested in Twitter Investigation, THE GUARDIAN (May 1, 2012).)

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 grants rape victims and victims of other serious sexual offenses anonymity for life. (Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, c. 34.) After the conviction of Evans for the rape of a 19-year old girl, the victim was repeatedly named and harassed via social media outlets, including Twitter, where her name was circulated so widely it reportedly became what is known in Twitter as a “trending topic.” (Ben Dowell, Twitter Users to Be Arrested over Naming of Ched Evans Rape Victim, THE GUARDIAN (Apr. 24, 2012).)

The 12 individuals were arrested on suspicion of malicious communication or of offenses under section five of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, on publication of material in violation of the anonymity to be accorded to victims of sexual offenses. Malicious communication is an offense where a person sends someone an electronic communication that conveys a threat and the purpose of sending it is to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom the contents may be communicated. (Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, supra; The Malicious Communications Act 1998, c. 27; Crown Prosecution Service, Communications Offences.)

The Home Secretary of the United Kingdom has expressed concern that, despite having laws to protect the victims of these crimes, technology has outpaced the law and that the statutes need to be carefully reviewed. (Ched Evans: Rape Case Twitter Arrests Warning by Police, supra.)