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Be Careful What You Post: Social Media Threats Can Be Criminal Acts

Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Along with other freedoms of expression, the right to speak without censorship or restraint is safeguarded under the First Amendment. The boundaries of this right are often litigated in front of the Supreme Court, which has ruled that there are limitations such as the prohibitions against slander and libel. In some situations, speech in the form of threats to kill or hurt people are not only not protected, they constitute a crime.

The rise of the Internet along with the corresponding flow of information and ideas means that there is a new frontier where the line between protected speech and criminal threats must be determined. The availability and popularity of social tools like Reddit, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook have led to new questions over what language is permissible. Harassment runs rampant with almost three-quarters of adults having witnessed online harassment, one-quarter of those witnesses having seen someone being physically threatened online, and 88 percent of teenagers having witnessed cruel behavior against another person on social media.

Last year, the Supreme Court faced the issue of limits of speech on social media in Elonis v. U.S. In that case, an aspiring rapper posted violent language on Facebook in a way that appeared to threaten a number of people, including his estranged wife and an FBI agent. The defendant was convicted of violating a federal law that makes it a crime to transmit a “threat to injure the person of another.” Although the Court did not directly rule on the free speech issue, it did reverse the conviction and remand it for further review into the defendant’s intent. While most lower courts have concluded that a true threat depends on how an objective person would understand the words, the Supreme Court held that criminal law requires an awareness of guilt such that social media posts are threats only if the person intended them that way.

The applicability and interpretation of the law will continue to evolve as cyber communication presents new challenges. It’s important to remember, though, that behind every screen and user name is another person. We all have to take responsibility for our words, which have the potential to live online forever and can affect future employment, relationships, educational opportunities, investigations, and more. Threats, whether made in person or on social media, are illegal and can lead to serious criminal charges.

If you have any questions about this topic or if you have been charged with a crime, you can find out more by discussing it with one of the criminal defense attorneys at Church, Langdon, Lopp, Banet Law. We have years of experience helping people and we can help you. Based in New Albany, Indiana, we proudly serve communities throughout Kentucky and Indiana including, but not limited to, Jefferson County, KY; Floyd County, IN; Clark County, IN; and Harrison County, IN. Contact us by calling (812) 725-8224 or through our online form.

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