The New York Times ran a fairly terrifying story on Wednesday about the increasing regularity with which young people who make allegedly threatening statements on Facebook or Twitter are being charged with felonies. Appropriately titled “140 Characters Spell Charges and Jail,” the article specifically focuses on those luckless souls who have had their lives destroyed after being caught posting about assassinating President Obama.
Apparently, there is a group of agents at the Secret Service collectively known as the Internet Threat Desk – if that doesn’t scream Orwell then nothing does – and these fine public servants descend on anyone who is determined to harbor serious “intent” to bring harm to the President. Then prosecutors take the ball and run wild. Young people across the country have been charged with felonies for posting tweets or Facebook statuses, no matter how jestful, that mention violence or assassination.
To be sure, the Secret Service should investigate every threat, even when it comes from a manifestly harmless teenager and even when credulity must be strained to believe that it’s anything more than an ill-advised attempt at humor, as is the case with many of those which have resulted in arrests.
“Investigate,” though, is the key word. An “investigation” typically involves applying logic, considering context, making intillegent judgments, and so on. But the full-throated legal assault being waged against those who make threats on the Internet has surpassed all limits of reason and rationality. Young lives are being ruined over careless Internet comments that harm nobody. The Times piece tells the story of Jarvis Britton, a 26-year-old African-American from Birmingham. Britton twice made threats against Obama on Twitter and, as punishment for this crime, will now be locked in a cage for one year. The fact that he has taken medication for schizophrenia apparently did not factor into his sentence. Britton was already unemployed; what will his future look like now, when any potential employer can quickly find out he served time in prison for threatening to kill the President? Not to mention the fact that he has to waste a year of his life in a cell, joining nearly one million other African-Americans who are currently locked up, expelled from society, effectively dismissed as Unpeople.
The misfits and undesirables who threaten the President, joking or not, are hardly the only Americans being punished for the crime of typing in the English language. The full force of the law is also being brought down upon Americans who make what are called “Terroristic Threats” on the Internet. Two recent high-profile cases, one in Massachusetts and the other in Texas, illuminate the absolute absurdity of this concept. Cameron D’Ambrosio, a high-school student with a perfectly clean record who likes to rap, was arrested in May over lyrics he posted on Facebook, which were ludicrously interpreted as a Terroristic Threat. The case generated a substantial amount of attention and public outrage and the charges were eventually dropped – after the teenager spent about a month in a jail cell – but, again, what will now become of D’Ambrosio? He was and remains the only “victim” in the entire saga; his name will now forever linked with these “threatening” lyrics and this arrest, regardless of what his official criminal record might say.
In Texas, another teenager, Justin Carter, is “currently on suicide watch” in a jail outside San Antonio, where he has had the good fortune of residing since February. Carter, in an argument with some friends online, said he was going to “shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still-beating hearts,” along with another similarly worded threat, both of which were followed with “LOL” and “J/K.” This did not deter the authorities. Nor did the fact that they found no weapons of any kind or anything to suggest Carter was actually plotting an attack. Never mind, though, he’s obviously a Terrorist. Carter was locked up and bail was set at a reasonable $500,000; his parents, who originally thought the entire thing was a joke, cannot afford the $50,000 needed to get their son released. Carter’s lawyer says he has represented murderers for whom bail was set at less than one-third of this amount. The teen faces up to eight years in prison and his life will certainly never be the same. Can anyone defend this as proportional punishment?
In Highland, Pennsylvania, two young men were recently arrested and charged with making Terroristic Threrats over posts that referenced “shooting up” a local school. They claimed it was a joke to test the limits of free speech on Facebook. Neither student was in possession of any guns or any other kinds of weapons. Who cares? These measures, which might seem harsh on the surface, are obviously necessary to Keep Us Safe.
In Bronwsville, Texas, a sixteen-year-old girl, currently in the ninth grade and capable, no doubt, of boundless evil, was arrested in April on the grounds that one of her Facebook posts communicated an attempt to “copy” a recent attempted “bombing” of her school. This despite the local authorities admitting that the original “bomb” was actually “not a bomb” at all, but rather “nothing more than a cap-type item with a mild accelerant” that “wasn’t intended to commit bodily harm.” So, this child was arrested, her reputation stained forever, for musing on Facebook about copy-catting what was a non-attack, carried out with a non-bomb.
The Brownsville case is particularly revealing because of one quote attributed to the police chief of the local school district, Oscar Garcia. Here is Garcia’s rationale for arresting this child for her “threat”:
It’s unacceptable with events like Boston and all this crazy stuff going on. Joking or not, we’re going to take it serious.
This is the kind of honesty that we would never hear from a skilled political operator. Garcia is expressly stating that, in light of “events like Boston” and other, unspecified “crazy stuff,” authorities must step up the ferocity with which they address cases relating to “threatening” speech. In other words, in this scary, post-Boston world, we are left no choice but to arrest teenage girls for their mindless Facebook posts, because Terrorism. In D’Ambrosio’s case, it was quite apparent that, coming just days after the Marathon bombing, and with D’Ambrosio even referencing that attack in his so-called “threat,” absolutely no chances would be taken. After all, one can never be sure that the next 9/11 isn’t being masterminded on the pages of this kid’s notebook, as he sits in his middle-class home, primed to strike after skillfully deceiving us all with good behavior for his entire life.
This is absolute lunacy. Authorities in these cases seemingly make no distinctions based on age, record of behavior, possession (or lack thereof) of weapons, mental health, or anything else. In March, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a 13-year-old boy was charged with eleven counts of Terroristic Threats after being found composing a “kill list” consisting of some classmates and teachers. (No one told the poor lad that there is only one American citizen who is permitted a kill list.) What will possibly become of this child? Is it morally responsible to wreck his life before he even reaches high school because of one single instance of victimless stupidity?
A Google search reveals dozens of similar cases across the country. This crackdown on Internet speech, largely targeting the young, is radically misguided. It takes a sledgehammer to the First Amendment and arbitrarily determines which speech is “threatening” and which is not (Eminem’s many lyrics conveying his plans to commit murder are considered harmless entertainment – which they are – but Cameron D’Ambrosio’s represented serious “intent”). It puts young people and their families through a legal nightmare straight out of Kafka, resulting in financial ruin and incalculable social and reputational damage. It takes more youths who have committed victimless “crimes” and tosses them and their futures into the merciless American Prison State.
Children being arrested and called Terrorists, bail amounts set at hundreds of thousands of dollars, multiple felonies, long prison sentences: we have lost our minds. This is a flagrantly excessive and destructive assault on free speech that is racking up an impressive count of victims. Our elected leaders have gone berserk over the virtually nonexistent threat of Terrorism and they are quite obviously willing to sacrifice our most cherished values – from privacy, to due process, to free speech – at the altar of Keeping Us Safe. The national obsession with Terrorism and Safety, which encompasses all levels of government and a substantial part of the public, is now driving us to previously unseen levels of irrationality and authoritarianism.
Justin Doolittle writes a political blog called Crimethink. He has an M.A. in public policy from Stony Brook University and a B.A. in political science from Coastal Carolina University.