Where does online free speech end?

June 9th, 2014 at 11:00 am by David Farrar

The Herald reports:

Messages posted on Facebook and Twitter or sent in emails can be tasteless, vulgar and even disturbing.

But just when do they cross the line from to threats that can be punished as a crime?

As the internet and social networks allow people to vent their frustrations with the click of a mouse, the US Supreme Court is being asked to clarify the First Amendment rights of people who use violent or threatening language on electronic media where the speaker’s intent is not always clear. The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom f speech and other basic rights.

The justices could decide as early as Monday whether to hear appeals in two cases where defendants were convicted and sent to jail for making illegal threats, despite their claims that they never meant any harm.

Often authorities do over-react. The worst case was in the UK when a man was arrested seven days after he tweeted he was so annoyed with a flight delay, he might blow something up. A dumb thing to do, and one could understand if action was taken at the time. But to hunt him down seven days later, was awful.

But how about these cases:

In one case, a Pennsylvania man ranted on Facebook in the form of rap lyrics about killing his estranged wife, blowing up an amusement park, slitting the throat of an FBI agent and committing “the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”

That’s way over the line. Especially the reference to the estranged wife, and the school shooting.

The other case involves a Florida woman who emailed a conservative radio talk show host about “second amendment gun rights” and said she was planning “something big” at a Broward County government building or school. The US Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.

“I’m going to walk in and teach all the government hacks working there what the 2nd Amendment is all about,” the email said. Her comments triggered a lockdown affecting more than a quarter-million students.

No sympathy in this case either. It is a specific credible threat that could not be ignored.

In both cases, the defendants were prosecuted under a federal statute that makes it a crime to transmit a “threat to injure the person of another.” Those laws apply only to “true threats” that are not protected by the First Amendment under a doctrine established by the Supreme Court in 1969. The high court has said laws prohibiting threats must not infringe on constitutionally protected speech that includes “political hyperbole” or “vehement,” “caustic,” or “unpleasantly sharp attacks” that fall shy of true threats.

I’d see both of those as true threats. A quip about blowing up an airport because a flight was late is hyperbole.

The wife of the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, man, Anthony Elonis, testified at his trial that the postings made her fear for her life. One post about his wife said, “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”

What a creep. Posting that to the Internet is a form of mental torture, designed to harass and terrify his wife – at least.

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19 Responses to “Where does online free speech end?”

  1. EAD (565 comments) says:

    But the thing is though, we already have laws to cover the above – it is called “incitement to violence”, or “threatening violence”. It has nothing to do whatsoever with the the protection of “free speech” which is causing politically aware people (mainly from the Libertarian right but in reality from all decent minded people across the spectrum (well maybe not the far left commies and fascists) to feel alarmed at the growing threats to free speech.

    To most common sense people, death threats, physical threats against the person, vulgar and hateful abuse are beyond the pale – and easy to identify.

    The problem starts when mere disagreement or disapproval of another person’s views, lifestyle choice or behaviour gets branded as “hate speech”, “homophobia”, “Islamophobia” and all the rest of the PC crock of b/s which is constantly thrown around in the effort to suppress free speech and thought.

    The internet can be a nasty place, but who trusts anybody to regulate it impartially? If the choice is between the law of the jungle and the socially engineered mind control of the establishment, then you may find that most people prefer the law of the jungle.

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  2. Graeme Edgeler (3,262 comments) says:

    No sympathy in this case either. It is a specific credible threat that could not be ignored.

    The second example is not nearly as clear. The response of a lockdown may be appropriate, but “I’m going to walk in and teach all the government hacks working there what the 2nd Amendment is all about,” could be a statement about a protest where a person carries a gun to make they point that they are allowed to.

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  3. stephieboy (2,122 comments) says:

    Good post DPF and there is nothing to dispute the interesting and pertinent points you raise. I for one happen to be rather laissez faire when it comes to e.g postings on KB and we have you to thank you for with your generous indulgence c.f to say Trade Me.But of course there are limits such us credible threats of violence vs hyperbole which you outline and sum up very well.
    I don’t think the Framers of the US Constitution had in mind the protection of credible violent threats directed at others.

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  4. Redbaiter (7,521 comments) says:

    People should only be charged for what they do.

    Words should never be a crime.

    [DPF: So if someone says I am going to kill you, that should not be an offence? How about telling a woman tyou are going to rape her?]

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  5. seanmaitland (454 comments) says:

    “Often authorities do over-react. The worst case was in the UK when a man was arrested seven days after he tweeted he was so annoyed with a flight delay, he might blow something up. A dumb thing to do, and one could understand if action was taken at the time. But to hunt him down seven days later, was awful.”

    I don’t agree with DPF on here. If its not something you would say in real life to a law-enforcement official, then you shouldn’t be posting it on Facebook either.

    People who post threats on the internet deserve everything they get – the police shouldn’t be making calls on what someones intent was when making a comment.

    Most of these people wouldn’t have the balls to say these things in real life, so they shouldn’t post them on the internet like tough guys either.

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  6. seanmaitland (454 comments) says:

    @Redbaiter – thats rich coming from you – I can assume your angry rants on here aren’t backed up in real life then?

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  7. Graeme Edgeler (3,262 comments) says:

    Words should never be a crime.

    Never?

    How about “yes, your honour, I saw XYZ stab ABC, I’m certain of it.”? Or “I’ll pay you $500,000 to kill XYZ”? Or “If you don’t pay me $10,000, I’ll tell police that you raped me”? Or “If you don’t consent to having sex with me, I’ll kill ABC”? Or “give me your wallet or I’ll kill you”?

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  8. Redbaiter (7,521 comments) says:

    I knew some pedant would come back with a play on the word “never”.

    What’s your opinion on the issue Mr. Edgeler?

    Be good to see you produce one now and aqain.

    Especially as you’re now one of KDC’s mob.

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  9. JamesBlake (54 comments) says:

    I agree RB that free speach is incredibly important. What has to be taken into consideration is do we have to wait until someone actually kills someone before we intervene. Pure free speach technically woudl say yes. I think personally when there is a true and credible threat that there should be the ability to intervene to prevent harm.

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  10. Nigel Kearney (864 comments) says:

    In one case, a Pennsylvania man ranted on Facebook in the form of rap lyrics about killing his estranged wife, blowing up an amusement park, slitting the throat of an FBI agent and committing “the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”

    Everybody has an opinion about specific examples, but few people have any idea how to come up with a rule that isn’t obviously too broad. The last three above are not specific enough, unless the school, amusement part or FBI agent are named. If you outlaw rap lyrics that threaten an ex-partner then I suspect half the rappers in the US would be included.

    Anyway there’s no real point in criminalising this sort of thing unless you are going to put the person away long enough to prevent them carrying out the threat. And the actual penalties are not even close to that. Obviously if the wife sought a protection order she could include the Facebook posting in support of her application.

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  11. eszett (2,329 comments) says:

    Redbaiter (6,887 comments) says:
    June 9th, 2014 at 12:32 pm
    I knew some pedant would come back with a play on the word “never”.

    Yupp, “never” is such an ambiguous word.

    What’s your opinion on the issue Mr. Edgeler?

    Be good to see you produce one now and aqain.

    Especially as you’re now one of KDC’s mob.

    Ah, I see, another example of red playing the ball and not the man

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  12. Odakyu-sen (439 comments) says:

    “Words should never be a crime.”

    I know what you are saying, but as the old jingle goes: “it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it…”

    The trouble is that communication is far more than words alone. Context as well as the credibility in the eyes of the receiver of the sender of the message can totally change the way the receiver perceives meaning of the utterance.

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  13. Redbaiter (7,521 comments) says:

    [DPF: So if someone says I am going to kill you, that should not be an offence? How about telling a woman tyou are going to rape her?]

    That is vulgar and offensive beyond doubt, but should still not be subject to law.

    It is an example of the extremes we must permit if we seek to completely protect freedom of expression as we should.

    You need to think about it this way Mr Farrar-

    Once we had a civil society, and the threats you mention above were very rare.

    Nowadays, with the development of our progressive society at the expense of our civil society, they’re far more frequent.

    Its a good example of what I’m talking about when I say Progressives are constantly asserting that they care about protecting our freedoms, yet behind every push to curtail those freedoms, you will discover a Progressive pushing a Progressive idea.

    We do not need legislation. All we need is the civil society we had before the Progressives, with their cultural Marxist onslaught (mainly through movies & TV), consigned it to the dustbin of history.

    The solution is so damn simple and plain. Repel the Progressives and revert to civility.

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  14. stephieboy (2,122 comments) says:

    The Crimes Act 1961 s 306 Threatening to kill and cause grievous bodily harm,

    http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/1961/0043/latest/DLM330785.html

    Would Redbaiter like to see this amended or abolished ,?

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  15. eszett (2,329 comments) says:

    Once we had a civil society, and the threats you mention above were very rare.

    Ah, yes, life was so much better in the good ol’ days.
    Those damn Progressives, in a civil society we would just round them up and shoot them.

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  16. gump (1,471 comments) says:

    @Redbaiter

    “Words should never be a crime.”

    ————————-

    Does this mean you are advocating for the disestablishment of the Office of Film and Literature Classification? (formerly the Indecent Publications Tribunal).

    That’s very progressive of you Redbaiter.

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  17. wikiriwhis business (3,883 comments) says:

    The end of free speech

    Watch Walid Shoebat on Youtube and you will learn how free speech will be indocrinated into worship of Allah world wide.

    He explains any Muslim will tell you 666 means Allah is God. And that is the number of the beast.

    World wide Islam and Sharia law.

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  18. wikiriwhis business (3,883 comments) says:

    “Words should never be a crime.”

    No. context should never be a crime.

    Reasonable force was the correct legal context to child discipline. The progs removed that term when assaulting a child was already illegal.

    The progs also blame the world’s problems on capitalism when the real problem is monopolism through corporatism. A world of difference and context.

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  19. Viking2 (11,125 comments) says:

    The court referred five of the texts – which were words, not pictures – to the New Zealand Film and Literature Board of Review to see if they were objectionable publications and whether Walker could be prosecuted under the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act.

    The board – the review body above the Office of Film and Literature Classification – ruled the texts met the definition of a publication and were liable for classification.

    Despite the board ruling it could classify the text messages the same way they would a movie or book, Walker’s texts were not legally “objectionable” under the strict terms of the legislation.
    ……………………………….
    So now your txts are considered to be “publications”

    This ruling comes from a not nice case but has now established a precedent it would seem.
    Perhaps the legal beagles would like to comment, not on the case per se but on the ruling creating Txt’s as objectionable publications. Bearing mind that txt’s are usually between two parties unless retxted or twittered.

    Here is the case as reported. don’t get mixed up in the case just the new “Law” created.

    http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/10132043/Sex-txts-can-end-with-jail

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