Empty Threats? Social Media, National Security, and the First Amendment

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Last week brought President Barack Obama to North Carolina for the Democratic National Convection (“DNC”), and with his arrival came the expected security concerns—run of the mill political protests and direct physical threats come to mind first. But it’s 2012, and things are different now.

The day before the DNC began, a 21-year-old named Donte Jamar Sims tweeted, “Ima hit president Obama with that Lee Harvey Oswald swag,” and "The Secret Service is gonna be defenseless once I aim the Assault Rifle at Barack's Forehead." According to court documents and CNN, a Secret Service intelligence research specialist discovered the tweets. If Sims is convicted of threatening the President, he faces a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The pseudo-anonymity of the Internet—interpersonal communication behind the barrier of a computer screen—can encourage people to say things they might never say face-to-face. It breeds invincibility and otherwise absent confidence, the opportunity to speak in attention-getting hyperbole. But what many people fail to understand is that violent threats made on the Internet are not viewed by law enforcement as empty nor as mere hyperbole. As evidenced by Sims’s tweets last week, threats made on social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter are taken seriously, especially when they concern the President of the United States.

In balancing the First Amendment with national and local security, recent court decisions involving Facebook and Twitter have tipped the scales in favor of security. Just weeks before the DNC, a Florida college student was sentenced to three years probation and 250 hours of community service for posting assassination threats against the President on Facebook. Although the student said that he never intended to carry out the threats, U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke admonished, “[w]hen you write something for cyberspace, you write it for the world.”

Criminal cases stemming from the Occupy Wall Street movement have also seen courts favor law and order over First Amendment and privacy rights. As CNN reported, this past July, a New York Criminal Court ordered Twitter to relinquish a protester’s tweets and data from a three-and-a-half-month period. The protester was arrested along with 700 other protesters at an October march on the Brooklyn Bridge. The ACLU has spoken out against the ruling, stating, “[t]he government shouldn't be able to get this sensitive and constitutionally protected information without a warrant and without first satisfying First Amendment scrutiny.” Twitter filed its appeal on August 27.

Social media expands the scope of threats, and, by doing so, takes courts into underdeveloped territory. According to the Executive Director of the First Amendment Center, “[a]s it made the quantum leap from parchment to paper through the electronic era to digital formats, First Amendment law on freedom of expression has lagged behind technology.” How courts throughout the country deal with the diverse array of First Amendment and social media issues will likely be a question of time and the development of precedent.

Posted by Alexandra M. Tronolone on Mon. September 10, 2012 4:50 PM
Categories: Social Media

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