Where does online free speech end?

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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