Another Teen's Facebook 'Threat' Results In Criminal Charges Being Filed

from the this-climate-of-fear-is-corroding-free-speech dept

Another teenager has found himself on the receiving end of criminal charges for "threats" delivered via social media. Venkat Balasubramani at Eric Goldman's blog runs down the details.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, P.T., a 15 year old high school sophomore (in Ohio) posted the following to his Facebook page:

"Kids were shot. Who cares? Dead kids are dead kids. Murder is a good thing.

This is a serious status. I really think murder is a good thing. It doesnt (sic) matter who is getting killed as long as there is killing. I have been saying for years now that there needs to be another mass murder, I have said this too (sic) many people. The fact they were kids just makes me laugh. I'd have done this job myself if I could have.

All forms of life are insignificant. Doesnt (sic) matter if they die today, tomorrow, or in 30 years. They are going to die. I might as well help them out."[emphasis added]

Two things happened in response to this comment. First, Cory, an online acquaintance of P.T.’s, and P.T. exchanged words. Cory said P.T. should watch P.T.’s back; P.T. said he would “shit fury all over [Cory] and [Cory] will drown in it.”
Separately, several parents of students and students who came across the Facebook posts expressed concern to the police and to the principal of Wilmington High School. P.T. was arrested, detained and underwent a psychological assessment. He was also charged with “menacing” (R.C. 2903.21(A)) and “inducing panic” (R.C. 2917.31(A)(3)). The school monitored the situation, and sent out a robocall advising parents that it had the situation under control. Significantly, neither Cory, nor the principal of Wilmington High School stated that either of them viewed P.T.’s statements as a threat (the principal was more equivocal about it).
Before we get into the discussion of the validity of these charges (and other concerns], let's take a look at the entire conversation, as quoted in the court decision.
The conversation between Cory and P.T. [following the statement quoted above] went as follows:

CORY: so [sic] what your [sic] saying is, If [sic] someone just walked up shot your mother, father, siblings right in front of you, Yoou [sic] would just laugh?

P.T.: Yes, I would.

CORY: You might want to watch your back, chances are someone will see this and they will jump your ass

P.T.: What the fuck did you just fucking say about me, you little bitch? I'll have you know I graduated top of my class in the Navy Seals, and I've been involved in numerous secret raids on Al-Quaeda [sic], and I have over 300 confirmed kills. I am trained in gorilla (sic) warfare and I'm the top sniper in the entire US armed forces. You are nothing to me but just another target [sic] I will wipe you the fuck out with precision the likes of which has never been seen before on this Earth, mark my fucking words. You think you can get away with saying that shit to me over the Internet? Think again, fucker. As we speak I am contacting my secret network of spies across the USA and your IP is being traced right now so you better prepare for the storm, maggot. The storm that wipes out the pathetic little thing you call your life. You're fucking dead, kid. I can be anywhere, anytime, and I can kill you in over seven hundred ways, and that's just with my bare hands. Not only am I extensively trained in unarmed combat, but I have access to the entire arsenal of the United States Marine Corps and I will use it to its full extent to wipe your miserable ass off the face of the continent, you little shit. If only you could have known what unholy retribution your little "clever" comment was about to bring down upon you, maybe you would have held your fucking tongue. But you couldn't, you didn't, and now you're paying the price, you goddamn idiot. I will shit fury all over you and you will drown in it. You're fucking dead, kiddo.
If you've been on the internet for any length of time, you'll recognize that last "statement" as being a direct quote of a well-known meme that first appeared a few years back at (where else) 4chan.

The inclusion of this epic and familiar bit of trash talk seems to indicate that P.T.'s original post maybe wasn't quite as serious as he claimed it was. His initial statement may have been nothing more than a particularly horrible form of trolling. (To the extent that it got a small rise out of his online acquaintance, it arguably worked.) Not only that, but Cory stated he never felt threatened by P.T.'s posts.

The court addresses this final, copy-pasted "statement" briefly in its decision ("In response, P.T. posted a lengthy statement stating that he will "shit fury all over you and you will drown in it. You're fucking dead, kiddo.") but swiftly moves past that (apparently unaware of its origins) to deal exclusively with P.T.'s initial statement.

P.T.'s argument that he made no direct threat and that his post was "untargeted" ultimately made no difference in the court's interpretation of the statutes he was charged under.

As to the charge of "menacing," the court declared:
The reach of R.C. 2903.22(A) is not so narrow as to be restricted only to conduct constituting an overt threat as P.T. suggests. Rather, the statute proscribes a much broader spectrum of behavior by criminalizing any conduct engaged in by a person knowing that such conduct would cause another to believe the offender will cause the other person, or the other’s family, physical harm. In the present case, P.T. posted on Facebook—knowing that it is a website readily accessible to many individuals living in the Wilmington area— endorsing the events that occurred at Sandy Hook and stating that if he had the means to accomplish such a shooting, he would have "done the job" himself. Although the posts were not made to or about any particular person, it was reasonable to believe that the posts would be viewed and conveyed through Facebook to individuals associated with the Wilmington school district, where P.T. attended school.
The court also added this somewhat dubious rationale for its decision on the "menacing" charge:
P.T.’s conduct must be viewed, according to the court, “within the context of a highly emotional, fearful, and hyper-vigilant climate existing in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting.”
Allowing emotions, fear and hyper-vigilance to guide legal decisions isn't necessarily a good idea. We've seen the damage done when these are used to guide legislation. Applying this to the criminal justice system tends to encourage prosecutorial and judicial behavior more closely aligned with revenge than the pursuit of justice.

P.T. also argued against the charge of "inducing panic," but this was shot down as well:
P.T.’s Facebook posts caused members of the public to contact police, required weekend meetings between the police, Principal Carey, Wilmington school district’s superintendent and the school district’s business manager, led to the school issuing an “all call,” alerting the entire student body to the situation, triggered a police presence at Wilmington High School on the following day of classes, and resulted in several students being absent from school due to their parents’ fear of what might happen.
Surprisingly, considering the hefty bail amounts and lengthy prison sentences others in the same set of circumstances have met with, P.T.'s sentence comes off as rather lenient, especially considering the court allowed "emotions" and "fear" to guide its decision-making.
End result: P.T. is placed on probation, ordered to serve 55 days on an electronic monitoring unit, participate in family counseling, complete community service, and pay costs.
One of the first aspects that must be addressed is the sentencing. In this case, P.T. was sentenced by a juvenile court (sentence upheld by this decision) and was not charged under any terrorism statutes. The investigation consisted of some questioning and a rational decision by the PD and prosecutors to not pursue anything ridiculous like "terroristic threat" charges. It's not that Ohio doesn't have "terroristic threat" laws -- it does*-- it's just that the reaction here was more muted and more reasonable than others we've seen despite the fact that P.T. posted his "threat" on the same day as the Sandy Hook shooting. Others with more time and emotional distance separating the tragedies and the "threats" have met with harsher punishments from courts not admittedly operating in a climate of "emotion and fear."

*[If anything, Ohio's law is too broad -- "It is not a defense to a charge of a violation of this section that the defendant did not have the intent or capability to commit the threatened specified offense or that the threat was not made to a person who was a subject of the threatened specified offense." -- try getting out of that one should a prosecutor decide to bring terroristic threat charges against you.]

Balasubramani questions the impact such a decision will have on free speech (which could also be applied to Cam D'Ambrosio and Justin Carter's cases), especially seeing as the court didn't even raise the issue. (Granted, neither did the defendant.)
The court glosses over the question of whether P.T.'s statement was a "true threat," and the available evidence indicated that it wasn't. The language used by P.T. was clearly conditional. Neither P.T.'s online acquaintance nor the principal viewed it as such. (Cory and P.T. had a separate exchange of words, but the court does not use this as a basis for affirming.) Sure, it's distasteful and even abhorrent speech, but that does not make it unprotected speech…
In any event, the court's refusal to even tackle the First Amendment question is a bummer. Maybe online threat posts are the new "fire in a crowded theater"? Either way, my sense is that there are a growing number of cases involving online postings where courts do not engage in any First Amendment analysis--and online speech is suffering as a result.
This is problematic. The heightened sensitivity in the wake of tragedies tends to result in overreaction. Unfortunately, it seems as though this "sensitivity" will never go away, thanks to the advent and expansion of anti-terrorist laws in the wake of 9/11, which gives prosecutors a new tool to use to punish ill-advised online statements. The uptick in monitoring of students' off-campus speech further exacerbates this charged situation.

By all means, officials can and should investigate perceived threats. But the common response so far has been to detain, charge and lock up teens with faulty brain-to-keyboard filters first and ask questions (or investigate) later. The system isn't working the way it should when these investigations turn up nothing but the prosecutors still feel compelled to pursue felony "terrorist" charges in response to clumsy executions of protected speech.



Reader Comments (rss)

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  •  
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    Ninja (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 3:58am

    trained in gorilla (sic) warfare

    He better be trained, we all should. The apes will dominate the Earth. Oh wait.

     

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    Tom, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 6:23am

    Common law

    And now it's legal precedent because the kid wouldn't challenge a punishment so mild...

     

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    RyanNerd (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 6:35am

    Git off my lawn!!!

    But the common response so far has been to detain, charge and lock up teens with faulty brain-to-keyboard filters first and ask questions (or investigate) later.
    Perhaps I'm just an old coot that hates children but aside from the 'lock up' and 'investigate later' procedures the drain bramaged teens could use a good scare.

     

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  • This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
     
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    out_of_the_blue, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 6:36am

    Isn't protected speech under common law.

    It's just the snarlings of a particularly rabid ankle-biter.

    Listen, kids, "speech", especially "free speech", to be protected from gov't interference which is what "protected" means here, must at least express an idea, not just convey a threat.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 8:58am

      Re: Isn't protected speech under common law.

      Oh, the common law that has nothing to do with anything?

      Got it.

       

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      Gwiz (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 9:41am

      Re: Isn't protected speech under common law.

      Isn't protected speech under common law.

      Who (besides you) is talking about common law? We are talking about Constitutional law.



      Listen, kids, "speech", especially "free speech", to be protected from gov't interference which is what "protected" means here, must at least express an idea...

      Not sure where you've gotten the notion that speech isn't protected by the Constitution unless it expresses an idea. All speech is protected unless it falls under one or more of the exceptions recognized by the Supreme Court. If I say "Fiddle-dee-dum here comes the plum" it's protected, even if it's nonsensical. Opinions and observations are also protected speech, even if they don't convey an idea.



      ...not just convey a threat.

      Yes, threats are usually considered unprotected speech, but not always:
      Threats of violence that are directed at a person or group of persons that has the intent of placing the target at risk of bodily harm or death are generally unprotected. However, there are several exceptions. For example, the Supreme Court has held that "threats may not be punished if a reasonable person would understand them as obvious hyperbole", he writes. Additionally, threats of "social ostracism" and of "politically motivated boycotts" are constitutionally protected. However, sometimes even political speech can be a threat, and thus becomes unprotected. Source

       

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 6:37am

    This is overreaction, but it's pretty obvious that kid has some "problems". It would probably be better if they sent him to a mental health clinic.

     

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      Wally (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 6:45am

      Re:

      There is one thing that should be noted. When any person with some sort of mental trauma in their life begins to lash out irrationally, and claims that they worked with al-Qaeda in secret with our government, needs to be detained for psych evaluation. Maybe the kid getting detained would be escaping from a particularly bad home life.

       

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        Rikuo (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 10:35am

        Re: Re:

        " claims that they worked with al-Qaeda"

        re-read the paragraph. PT says he conducted raids on Al'Qaeda not that he worked with them.

         

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        Anonymous Coward, Sep 13th, 2013 @ 9:43pm

        Re: Re:

        Yes, because he should totally be pink slipped for copypasta. He didn't write he, he copied and pasted it.

         

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    Wally (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 6:39am

    Well...

    Actually, the charges are valid. The charges mentioned in the article are in fact minor ones. The most that could happen to P.T. is a psych evaluation under them. I know kids say the darnedest things and all, but man, claiming ties to al-Qaeda and claiming that you've secretly worked with them is so far fetched, it's probable that P.T. needed to be evaluated to figure out what was wrong in his or her life because of the way he/she lashed out. This is Ohio; we are mild by comparison.

     

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      Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 8:45am

      Re: Well...

      Totally agree. What he did was wrong, but it wasn't "OMG Da Terroristz" wrong. I think a pysch eval and some counseling is about right. Don't ruin the kid's life, but do give him some help, cause it's likely he needs it (even if it was just him trying to get attention)!

      I like the way Ohio handled this one. Maybe a little over the top, but it still isn't going to ruin anyone's life so it's hard for me to bicker with them over this one.

       

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        PRMan, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 11:58am

        Re: Re: Well...

        I'm failing to see anything wrong here. Making threatening statements that cause school officials and cops to work overtime shouldn't go unpunished. Making people afraid for their life should not be protected speech.

        And for them to have such a short punishment and help the kid without ruining his life for 20 Years™, it almost seems too short.

         

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    ^.^, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 7:21am

    Jesus Fucking Christ! This troll makes out_of_the_blue look like the goddamn pope.

     

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    Rikuo (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 10:33am

    Tim, I'm going to have to side with the court on this one. Unless I'm mis-reading the article, it all hinges on the "What the fuck did you just fucking say about me" paragraph that PT wrote. You mention that any average netizen should recognize it as being a 4chan quote.
    However, that is not true. I am a netizen and I had never before heard that paragraph (then again, I've only been on 4chan at most a couple times in my life). I consider myself average, in that, apart from 4chan, I visit more or less the same types of sites that those who go to 4chan visit. Before today, I had never heard it. Therefore, it is unlikely, extremely so, the judge(s) would have heard it as well.
    While it does contain some obvious lies (PT is 15 and that quote mentions him being a Marine with hundreds of kills), reading it, I was thinking to myself, that if I were Cory, I would have been afraid for my life. By all means, arrest him, investigate him, then throw his sorry ass in juvy to teach him not to quote what can very easily be taken as a serious threat to kill someone.
    In my opinion, it doesn't matter whether PT said this quote to Cory face to face, or through Facebook. He took time to post what is a very long and threatening screed, with the intent of making Cory afraid for his life.

     

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    Rekrul, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 10:59am

    "It is not a defense to a charge of a violation of this section that the defendant did not have the intent or capability to commit the threatened specified offense or that the threat was not made to a person who was a subject of the threatened specified offense."

    So if I were to post that I intend to destroy the entire known universe by creating a device to unravel the space/time continuum, they'd charge me with making terroristic threats? I'd love to see that play out in court.

     

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    Josef Anvil (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 12:11pm

    Ummmm

    If your Call of Duty CV can be taken as a threat, then we have a generation of Super Sniper Badass Seal Uber Agents out there ready to strike.

    Online.

     

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    Eponymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 12:49pm

    I see a problem here:

    First things first; the "I'm a trained sniper" screed is what the kids refer to as copy-pasta. It's an Internet meme similar to quoting a known monologue from a movie. Even if this particular copy-pasta isn't known, the sheer force of the hyperbole used shows it to be baseless in its malice, so adds nothing to the original "threat".

    As to that "threat"; my problem here is what if this kid was expressing a true opinion? Are we now making it illegal for a person to express "I am a sociopath that sees nothing wrong with murder." Whether or not that expression is based on the truth, is its making now a crime? To me this is wrong, and violates one's First Amendment protected rights. Would we criminalize, or support the criminalization of, someone stating they have a drug abuse problem? Granted, I understand the crux of the issue in that the person is identifing themself as a potential, future murderer, but to me that doesn't rise to the threshold of a criminal act. To do so would be to criminalize a psychological disorder regardless if an actual crime was committed. If this is where we're at in our society, of criminalizing mental states and/or the expressions of these states, how do we draw a functional boundry line of what constitutes a crime then? If, for the sake of argument, I am sympathetic to the cause of AQAP am I now a criminal? Is not akin to having thought crimes?

     

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    gyffes, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 12:56pm

    Actually

    he's like a lot of other disaffected teens in his attitude. He just was foolish enough to FB his ranty whiney feelings. I was exactly like this a thousand years ago in my vapid youth: angry (no, FURIOUS) at the world and totally willing to lash out at any body and any thing that glanced my way. Beyond a lot of fights, didn't end up doing much more than being an unpleasant menace, however, and eventually grew up. I'm sure there are thousands more like him skulking the halls of high schools everywhere. It's one of the Big Four teenage behavior patterns (Judd Nelson in the Breakfast Club was our hero 'til he wimps out at the end of the movie).

    Not a federal offense, but I can tell you that had I had access to weaponry, THINGS might've ended differently. I'm ok with the police and school acting cautiously with this and similar kids.

     

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    TheLoot (profile), Sep 12th, 2013 @ 1:34pm

    Uh, no one should be defending this one. This kid said he would seriously enjoy killing people. No mention of being joking, no mention of it not being serious, no j/k or LOL.

    That copypasta is irrelevant, it's a troll post, and it shows how little he cares about any consequences of his statements.

    I don't KNOW if he'd ever act on his apparent desires, but anyone looking at his words should be worried.

     

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    Anonymous, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 2:54pm

    "Dead kids are dead kids. Murder is a good thing". No wonder he admires the US armed forces so much. I bet when this blows over the military will be chomping at the bit to recruit him.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 12th, 2013 @ 11:47pm

    Really I'm gonna have to disagree with some of what prople have said here. While do agree with many of the posts about how P.T. Should be allowed to express his views, and that ultimately 'faux-threats' shouldnt be actionable, I think that an important metric is whether the threat is percieved as such by more than just the target precisely because the threatener is creating a climate of fear - you can control those around you by making them fear you, even if you arent specifically targeting them with threats, after all. And to that effect, I feel like relying on the fact that something is a meme is not the way to determine if people are impacted by said speech.

    Essentially, if we are assuming that true threats should not be protected speech because of tje impact on the target's life, then neither should this be, because of the impact on the people around the target.

     

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    Ron Hunter, Sep 13th, 2013 @ 1:06am

    Sentencing

    This person needs intense counseling on things like anger management, and recognizing reality, and when to keep his mouth shut. He goes off on someone who just made a suggestion for his own benefit, spouting lies, and making verbal attacks. Somehow, I suspect he would have done the same thing if confronted at school. He needs a lot more help than what the court gave him. You will be reading more about this teen before long.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 13th, 2013 @ 3:06pm

    whoa!!

     

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    Cory, Oct 29th, 2013 @ 5:34pm

    Hey its me.

    Hey this post is about me.
    Btw to anyone who assumed or thought I felt threaten I was not because I knew it was a joke.
    I never even knew the cops had got involved until the detective contacted me and asked me a few things about "P.T".

     

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