Florida Legislator Thinks First Amendment Should Be Trimmed Back A Bit To Deal With Social Media Threats

from the not-loopholes-but-protections dept

A reaction to the (non-physical) “explosion of social media in our society” has prompted an Florida legislator to make a questionable law even worse. Florida already has a law on the books making it a second-degree felony to threaten to kill or harm someone via electronic communications.

That’s apparently not good enough for state Rep. Stan McClain (whose “explosion” statement is quoted above). He has introduced an amendment to the law that would eliminate the language requiring targeted communications.

McClain’s bill would outlaw “written threats to kill or do bodily injury to another person that are publicly posted online, even if not specifically sent to or received by the person who is the subject of the threat…”

You can see immediately where the problem lies: this bill has the potential to criminalize protected speech, not to mention cause harm to people who express themselves terribly and in an unfocused manner. State Rep. Julio Gonzalez argued the bill would criminalize stupidity — a tempting prospect to be sure, but all but guaranteed to result in First Amendment violations.

McClain wants to fix what he views as a loophole in the state’s existing online threats law.

[A] recent state appellate decision highlighted the problem of prosecuting such cases when threats are posted on social media, as opposed to being sent by email, and are not necessarily aimed at one person.

“A juvenile’s conviction … was overturned, although the juvenile had posted multiple threats of school violence on Twitter, because the threats were not directly sent to or received by any of the threatened students or school officials,” a staff analysis explained.

This isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. Online speech should be difficult to prosecute, just like offline speech is. There’s a fine line to be tread when prosecuting apparent threats. Rewording the state law this way will only lead to state-ordained punishment of protected speech.

McClain is still trying to fine tune his bill, but it has already been passed out of committee and is the on the road to becoming viable legislation. The language treats any threat that can be viewed by anyone else as a criminal act, even if viewers aren’t targeted. McClain says the targeted criminal activity is the posting of threatening messages. He claims prosecutors won’t stack charges based on how many times the untargeted threat was viewed. That’s nice of him to say before the fact, but the reality is Florida residents won’t know how the law will be enforced until someone starts enforcing it.

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Comments on “Florida Legislator Thinks First Amendment Should Be Trimmed Back A Bit To Deal With Social Media Threats”

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aerinai says:

Couple of questions about the law

Statement 1:
“Next time I see you, Tim, I’m going to kill you.”

First off, this is a statement you can hear in a million different places and it has completely different meanings and connotations:

Place #1: Facebook – In context, angry dude who is known to be unstable. Ok, totally prosecutable and fine, but I’d argue this could already be prosecutable; no changes needed.

Place #2: Facebook – In context, sister comes home and posts a picture of her destroyed room. No history of physical abuse (other than typical sibling stuff). – You want to prosecute this???

Place #3: Any video game ever – So I post that in Overwatch to a player on the other side. Discussing the fact that I will murder his face off the minute I see him… in game. — You want to prosecute this???

Place #4: Posting on a site like this to make a point. – Well, it is specific (to Tim) and it is a threat, even though context (this post) obviously makes it benign and harmless. – You want to prosecute this???

This is why you need to narrowly tailor speech. Otherwise you make many people criminals for benign comments.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Couple of questions about the law

My fear is that in the pursuit of bringing about justice with create more injustice rather than reduce it. We really must take care to not shoot ourselves in the foot. People are still being arrested for speech that is clearly protected by a long chain of court cases.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Couple of questions about the law

Nice play on words there.

yes indeed, anyone that feels that justice is incomplete are people seeking revenge instead of actual justice.

Therefore Justice is a righteous ideal, that can never be achieved by corrupt humans, we can only come close. Even the Justice system makes a mockery of itself regularly.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Couple of questions about the law

Amendment 1 – Freedom of Religion, Press, Expression

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Narrow or not their proposal is not constitutional, even though this legislature is not Congress, and nothing they can do will make it narrow enough to not violate this countries operating instructions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Couple of questions about the law

Come now, since when did anyone care about that dusty old document? It is as good as trash now, we already have multiple laws that people support that are unconstitutional.

What is one or one million more?

And no, I am not being sarcastic, I am very serious here. I have yet to meet a single person when tested ever pass a constitutional understanding test. Everyone supports at least multiple laws that are blatantly unconstitutional.

Most people have not even read the US Constitution.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Couple of questions about the law

I do not support the unconstitutional laws you failed to identify.

Why should anyone have to pass a test for …. ummm what? What are you attempting to say here, guess I missed the point or something.

Also, when you include everyone or everything in a blanket statement about everything, you are most likely incorrect as a result of including everyone and everything in your statement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Couple of questions about the law

Yes I failed to clarify my statement.

“Everyone I have Met” supports at least multiple laws that are blatantly unconstitutional.

For example the easiest two are..

Can Citizens own fully automatic firearms? This is a guaranteed right in the constitution yet most would not agree.
Can people working for the government or military legally give classified information to the press with fear of prosecution? They sure can but many would not agree.
Can a Judge constitutionally issue a gag order? Never, yet many would agree they can and they happen all the time.

Those are just the low hanging fruit too!

This does not even get into the multitudes of folks that seek to create “thought crime” laws, and the many folks that watch the news and work for law enforcement that work off the “guilty until proven innocent” rule set.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Couple of questions about the law

I don’t know a lot of those, but I have found anarchists say the same “there ought to be a law” just like everyone else.

In my opinion anarchists are only that way because they disagree with the current law, they are no different than republicans or democrats when it comes to their blind dogma’s.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Couple of questions about the law

“I think somewhere along the way the internets have misunderstood my intentions with that comment….”

Fair enough, but if that was easy to misunderstand, how much easier will it be to misunderstand a narrowly defined speech law when a politician and his buddy, prosecutors, cops and judges jobs might depend on it. I think it is safe to say, it is better for people to just be emotionally butt hurt over things people say rather than someone to get physically butt hurt in jail because they said something someone did not like.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Couple of questions about the law

But that is the problem.

In order for a person to be able to run afoul of this law, what is going to be the benchmark for action?

When a person either directly or indirectly “feels” threatened? What if the police want to “feel” threatened on other’s behalf?
Will it be using the word Kill period or some other specific word or phrase?
What about jokes? Those off limits now too? or how about parody or how about just plain old satire?

The only result speech laws will have is the opposite of the intended. It’s not even a real secret, there is a long, ridiculously long human history lesson for humanity on how much people want to silence words they don’t like.

You say something I don’t like I now have the right to cause physical violence… it is just that simple and laws about speech is just that. The police having authority to cause violence upon your person for offending any speech law, real or imagined.

I don’t know about you, but I have “ZERO” confidence in my fellow humans coming to my aid if I were ever falsely accused. I will have more than enough accepting that I am automatically guilty upon being charged though…

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