Another 'Internet Threat' Results In Six Months In Jail And A Five-Year Ban From Social Media

from the so...-we've-rounded-up-all-the-REAL-criminals,-then? dept

Another person has been arrested for sending out “terroristic threats” via social media. Caleb Clemmons, a (former, obviously) Georgia Southern student, has spent the last six months in jail because of a Tumblr post that said the following:

hello. my name is irenigg and i plan on shooting up georgia southern. pass this around to see the affect it has. to see if i get arrested.

Within three hours, he was. Achievement unlocked: Bull fucked with; horns acquired.

Clemmons attempted to explain his post, calling it “an experimental literary piece and an art project.” No sale. The police charged him with “making terroristic threats via a computer,” which seems to be on par with doing it over the phone or by mail or in person. Why the delivery system matters, I have no idea.

Now, there’s no disputing the utter stupidity of the post and pretty much daring the police to take action only makes it worse. As I’ve said before, the police should definitely investigate possible threats like these. The problem is that the investigations come and go without turning up any evidence that the person delivering the threat poses a danger. And yet, the arrestee stays locked up.

Although police found no weapons or evidence of an actual plan to attack the school, a judge set Clemmons’ bail at $20,000, which was too much for him and his mother to pay. As a result, he spent the full time waiting for his court date in jail.

Not only did the police find nothing, but the administration at Georgia Southern didn’t even bother notifying the student body at the time of Clemmons’ arrest because it felt “there was no continuous threat.” In fact, no statement at all was made until Clemmons’ story resurfaced a week ago, over six months since the date of his original post.

At this point, Clemmons is technically free. He’s been sentenced to five years probation, along with six months in jail (which he already served). Perhaps more harshly, he’s been banned from social media for the entirety of his probation.

Like Justin Carter and Cameron D’Ambrosio, Clemmons said something stupid on the internet and is now paying the price for it — one that seems to outweigh the “crime” itself. And like the other two, he was investigated (which is good) but still remained imprisoned despite a complete dearth of evidence to support his ability to carry out the threat (which is terrible).

The overreaction of law enforcement to these “threats” is usually justified by pointing to recent school shootings or terrorist attacks. But what’s unsaid is that the perpetrators of the Sandy Hook shooting and the Boston Bombing (both cited frequently) didn’t deliver threats via social media (or anywhere really) before carrying out their acts of violence. Somehow prosecutors and law enforcement have gotten it into their heads that terrorists and mass murderers will be sending Tweets and lighting up Facebook before carrying out their plans. I think most murderers and terrorists would prefer to carry out their acts of violence unmolested rather than be detained or imprisoned, hence the lack of advance notice.

Not only would this sort of heads-up be an anomaly, but bombers and mass murders generally have some sort of evidence laying around, like stockpiles of weapons or bomb-making components. When these threats are investigated, one would expect the police to find something that backs up the words. But in all three of these cases, they haven’t.

Not only that, but the cases are weak enough that law enforcement and prosecutors have resorted to editorializing the actual “threats” made by these individuals in order to make their cases stick. In Ambrosio’s case, the police chief repeatedly dropped the part of his Facebook post where he said “Ima be famous rapping,” making it appear as though his fame relied solely on some vague allusions to other violent acts. In Carter’s case, prosecutors dropped the first part of his response (provoked by another person) — “I’m fucked in the head alright” — and presented the rest of the post (“I think I’ma shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them”) as a standalone statement in the indictment.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing looks like it will only get more common, rather than just become a time-dependent anomaly due to the proximity to acts of terrorism. The police need to take these statements seriously, but they also need to let it go when their investigations come up empty. To move forward with prosecution is to punish someone for stupidity, something that still isn’t a crime no matter how often we wish it was. There’s no terrorism prevention going on here — it’s just abuse of an easily-abused law and the end result makes no one any safer.

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Comments on “Another 'Internet Threat' Results In Six Months In Jail And A Five-Year Ban From Social Media”

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Mark Harrill (profile) says:

First Amendment

How is charging people with “crimes” like this not a violation of the First Amendement? While it definitly should be investigated and if there is a credible threat maybe there is a crime to be charged (i.e. possession of illegal firearms, bombs, etc), but as long as its just talk, isn’t it a violation of the first amendement to charge them for speaking the threat, no matter how vile?

The go-to counter argument for this will be people stating “you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater” trope. But if everyone in the theatre looks at you and tells you to sit down and shut up, have you really committed any crime? Same thing here, its just talk and when even the possible targets of the threat don’t take you seriously, how have you committed a crime?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: First Amendment

No. Threats are not protected speech. “Yes your honor, I threatened to shoot the witness if he testified against me, but I don’t even own a gun, so obviously I did nothing wrong!”

If nothing else, when you make a threat you are wasting the police’s time because they have to investigate to see if you ARE a threat.

Ninja (profile) says:

Ah US… Break the financial system and spark a world crisis unprecedented and walk free, pockets full of money. Violate the Constitution massively and walk free (pockets possibly filled with money too).

Now write something as stupid as it’s harmless, make gun sounds while pretending your fingers are guns, make your pastry look like a gun, play with water balloons and the likes. HEAVY DISPROPORTIONATE PUNISHMENT FOR YOU.

Which teaches a very clear lesson: if you are going to be eventually guilty of some random crime for innocuous actions then why not go the heavy crime way and make millions of dollars while getting away unscathed? This is a very dangerous path the US are walking.

theotherDude says:

Poor Judge ment

‘Not only did the police find nothing, but the administration at Georgia Southern didn’t even bother notifying the student body at the time of Clemmons’ arrest because it felt “there was no continuous threat.”‘

So the judge felt he was so potentially dangerous he required 20k in bail, but his university thought he was so clearly harmless they didn?t even issue a warning? Let me guess, this is a state that elects judges?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Is it?
If they call the entire internet a Social Media Device (It’s all Social in one form or another) and it’s Definitely a Media form.
They just lost access to E-Mail, web, research, job searches, ect.
Given most Mobile Phones have Messaging capabilities, no access to those either.
No TV, Cable , Dish, Direct Tv, ect (All Social Media)
Heck, almost anything you do now a days with the population could be “Defined” as a Social Media event.

TasMot (profile) says:

Its time to "light up facebook"

The stupidity of this type of reaction will be coming to a head soon. There just needs to be a large enough group making a “threat” like this that the police will have to throw up their hands and say “sorry we can’t handle it”. If a thousand of these “threats” show up at the same time in the same area, then a more reasonable reaction than “lock ’em up and throw away the key” will be required. A real investigation will have to be conducted because they don’t have the facilities to handle that many “terrorists”.
It will end up being more of a First Amendment saving version akin to “Occupy Social Networks”.
Its time to get rid of the thinking that jail time is required for holding up your fingers and saying bang but here’s an extra $100 million for causing the banking system to collapse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well, I feel MUCH safer knowing the cops are arresting the REAL terrorists like Caleb Clemmons are getting thrown behind bars!

Obviously Caleb Clemmons would have caused the next 9/11 had the police not thrown him in jail!

Sure the police and NSA and FBI/etc failed to catch the Boston Bombers, but hey, anyone can make a mistake of not watching a known terrorist we had warnings about from Russia!

And a terrorist armed with guns and bombs is NOTHING compared to the threat of an unarmed teenager with a computer and an Internet connection!

I also feel MUCH safer whenever the FBI catches it’s own home created terrorists and foils it OWN terrorist plots!

Richard (profile) says:

"Just Abuse"?

“There’s no terrorism prevention going on here — it’s just abuse of an easily-abused law and the end result makes no one any safer.”

I was inclined initially to accuse you (tongue-in-cheek) of simply trying to confuse the issue by expounding facts, but the word “just” got in my way.

In addition to an abuse that makes us no safer, this incident reminds us of:

1) the growing trend to ignore taking real responsibility by treating everyone the same, i.e., extremely badly, in the name of safety;

2) the terrorism of the masses into being “good little drones” by the application of overkill punitive measures;

3) the avoidance of any possible legal liabilities for having incorrectly dismissed a real threat.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Completely expected, not deserved. An unjust response to an action can’t be deserved by any reasonable definition of that word.

And while he may be an idiot, I think that it’s ludicrous to say that someone deserves no sympathy when the state overreaches it’s authority. He may have poor risk-assessment skills but that doesn’t excuse the state’s abuse of its monopoly on force.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

No, completely deserved. He knew what to expect, even said so in the message. He WANTED to get arrested and to create this situation. Now we should have sympathy? No freakin way. We all know the US govt will pull stunts like these and will never have to justify them.

But we all know that people are retarded and it’s only a matter of weeks/months before some other genius pulls the same thing and begs for our sympathy.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Regardless of how much you disagree with the man or think he’s an idiot it should be obvious that his is an abuse of power prompted by a broken system. Thankfully there are those like the ACLU that will even defend the likes of the KKK even if they fundamentally and vehemently disagree with them. Because free speech, due process and the likes always come before what you feel or think about anything.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“The problem is that the investigations come and go without turning up any evidence that the person delivering the threat poses a danger. And yet, the arrestee stays locked up.”

“Because free speech, due process and the likes always come before what you feel or think about anything.”

So says the bank robber holding a home-made gun replica.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“The problem is that the investigations come and go without turning up any evidence that the person delivering the threat poses a danger.”

After investigating, how much of a threat is a toy gun?

Is sentencing the same for a real gun and a toy gun used for a robbery? Here in Canada it is the same. The teller FELT their life was in danger.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

After investigating, how much of a threat is a toy gun?

That’s not relevant. The standard is that a reasonable person would perceive it as a threat of violence. That can be true even if the threat wasn’t actionable.

Canada and the US appear to be the same in terms of toy gun vs real gun used in the course of a robbery.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

Define reasonable person and how it relates to Jammie Thomas, Snowden and many more discussed here.

Would an American reasonable person flee for their life from their government, a free country?

Would a reasonable person make any kind of threat to a school, airport or any government building even following it with LOL?

There is no reasonableness. There is no common sense. Justice is a game.

Anonymous Coward says:

Poorly defined verdict

What is “social media”? Just Facebook and Twitter? Is Reddit included? What about Google+, or related sites? Is Clemmons banned from watching YouTube videos, or checking his GMail? Do forums count as “social media”? Any site that lets users post comments? Any site that has any form of social media integration, including “follow us” buttons?
Where exactly does “social media” begin and end, now that people have been chattering about “Web 2.0” for years?

Anonymous Coward says:

Okay… I agree that police overreach is getting rediculous overall. I generally deplore senseless prosecutions. I also agree 6 months may be a little long.

But… I don’t disagree with jail time for this. This sort of thing isn’t funny. It isn’t cute. Its deplorable and idiotic. This isn’t a vague out of context slip, this is someone not only declaring violent intent (whether he intended to follow through or not) but also declaring they are trying to see how big a disruption they can cause.

Internet Zen Master (profile) says:

Context context context

Very important, yet often ignored. Especially by overly paranoid law enforcement.

But for this one you don’t even need context. I mean, he flat out says in the tumblr post “pass this around, see if I get arrested”. That’s probably a hint that he wasn’t actually serious. I can understand the police showing up and questioning him at the very least (especially considering six months ago still had Sandy Hook fresh in everyone’s minds. Situational context is also important), but locking him up for six months for “making terroristic threats via a computer” when there was absolutely zero evidence that he actually intended to carry out his statement, seems a bit extreme.

Clemmons should’ve gone with “it’s part of a social experiment” instead of “experimental literary piece”. Probably wouldn’t have worked either, but it’d be more reasonable than Caleb’s explanation.

Anonymous Coward says:

Annoying fuck

While I don’t condone the punishment this annoying fuck got, these types of people are annoying fucks and something should be done to them. What “types” of people do I mean? Those that do their incredibly annoying “social experiments” on unsuspecting populaces.

Mainly in this category are those that passively-aggressively walk around getting in people’s faces videoing them and then so-calmly answer the angry queries of “what the fuck are you doing” with their calm “I’m just taping. What’s the matter?” voices. Their “point” is that “we’re all under surveillance, so why so upset at me just because you can see me doing it?” Then they upload this crap to youtube etc. and express faux be-wonderment that people react like they do.

These “types” perhaps don’t deserve prosecution, but they should be in public stocks for a few hours and allowed to be bitch-slapped by the general public during that time. There you go you annoying ass – now you know – this is the result of your unwitting “social experiment!”

That I would be in favor of.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I suppose you have no sympathy for Snowden either, as he clearly knew when he leaked those documents the US would come down on him hard, and I suppose in general you have no Sympathy for those who would put themselves in the line of fire just to show the stupidity of the situation in general.

Not to say that what he did wasn’t the smartest idea, he clearly had a strong idea what would happen when he posted that, but what better way to show what is wrong with a situation then, quite literally, showing it?

jingoi says:

Once again I’m hearing we’re fucked. The rich, powerful, surrounded with hundreds of muscle men with military grade guns at their command, old white men are immune to the law despite committing crimes publicly but we the people make a joking, JOKING!, NOT FUCKING REAL!, terror comment and they send us to jail for 5-50 years even if they learn we didn’t mean one damn word and there’s no fucking proof we are part of any terrorist activity! I’m not seeing any reason to continue going on in this world since we can’t beat this evil with the system since evil has corrupted the system. Obama can’t help us or won’t, whoever the next president is will follow the same path. And if a republican ends up as president we might as well start jumping into the abyss or live in the wilderness.

TheLoot (profile) says:

How many kids have to stick their fingers in an electrical socket before it becomes clear it’s a stupid idea?

While there has been an extreme amount of inappropriate punishment in these situations, these things should not be done without punishment.

Should not be done at all, in fact. There’s no good reason to try to make excuses as to why they don’t deserve punishment. Fight the sentence, not the sentencing.

John85851 (profile) says:

Blame comic books

I blame comic books for this. No, really, follow me for a minute:

I think it’s safe to assume that most people have read comic books or seen comic book movies. And in these comic books, we get super-villains like the Riddler and Joker who try to outwit Batman by leaving clues. If Batman can figure out the clues in time, he can prevent the Riddler from carrying out his dastardly plan!

Now extend this to the real world and you have people in government agencies who think teenagers are super-villains plotting to shoot a school and can be stopped if their Facebook postings can be deciphered in time.

Why is it that no one stops to think that a majority of the stuff said on Facebook is harmless? But, like training kids to be ready for a school bus hijacking, we have to prepare for any eventuality, after all, we never know when the next terrorist will strike. And obviously, he’ll put a cryptic (or not so cryptic) post on Facebook about it.

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