The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an important First amendment challenge to determine when Internet threats should be taken seriously by the law. The case will hopefully clarify whether threats of violence made on FACEBOOK should be judged based upon whether the person making the threats intended harm or whether the recipient of the threat was genuinely afraid of being harmed.
In light of recent shootings and other acts of violence that were telegraphed in social media, the answer to that question is Urgent!
The case before the Court deals with an area of First Amendment law known as “true threats”. these kinds of threats are not protected speech. The trick is in figuring out whether the threat is a “true threat” within the meaning of the law. The problem is that the courts have not yet looked at the question of “true threats” through the social media like Facebook.
This case is crucially important as it will force the court to clarify its “true threats” doctrine and apply it to social media. At the very least, this is a case about the line between First Amendment performance art, fantasy violence, real threats and real fear. In a world where it is virtually impossible to differentiate between an idle threat and a real one, it will determine where that line lies, or if there IS a line at all.
Thanks to Dahlia Lithwick and the Sun Sentinel, and
Thanks for “listening”.
The Neu Facebook
It doesn’t surprise me this made it to the Supreme Court. I know there have been times I have seen people quickly arrested for stating political opinions in the guise of “killing a politician” or the like. While such expressions are poor taste, they do not, in my opinion, rise to the level of a threat. But we have become a chicken-shit nation, if you ask me. We are all afraid of each other, and that could be the result of the unfiltered vitriol people are comfortable expressing online.
I certainly do not believe social media created the nastiness; what has happened is it permits it to emerge and be seen by a massive audience. Once, these kind of statements about wanting to hurt someone might never be expressed. A forum may easily amplify every voice.
None of this addresses the legal issue, of course, and this is such a difficult matter that even the Supreme Court is going to have a tough time wrestling with the “Constitutional particulars,” as it were.
I will say that I believe it is going to be difficult to enforce, regardless of the side on which this comes down. What if the court rules a threat must be taken seriously if the target person feels endangered. In that case, some people may decide they’ll take every threat seriously, informing law enforcement at every turn. The boy who cried wolf will have nothing on this people.
Then there are the issues of when to take the person seriously who makes the threat. Some people are just idiots and issue cavalier threats, but they are hardly dangerous. They’re just stupid. Of course, that can be dangerous, too.
It would be interesting to be in the SCOTUS building on the day of the arguments to hear what is being said. If we lean too much toward protection, based on credible threat or credible fear of it, it will become all to easy for law enforcement, already militarized to an excessive degree, to assume new “obligations” of protection, thus eroding our own rights further.