from the civil-liberties-v.-kneejerking dept
In a move that's sure to only increase the nation's respect for law enforcement, police departments have been arresting people for "threatening" social media posts. This activity follows the tragedy in Dallas, where five police officers were killed by a man armed with a rifle. Naomi LaChance of The Intercept has more details.
Four men in Detroit were arrested over the past week for posts on social media that the police chief called threatening. One tweet that led to an arrest said that Micah Johnson, the man who shot police officers in Dallas last week, was a hero. None of the men have been named, nor have they been charged.
Four more arrests have occurred elsewhere:
Last weekend in Connecticut, police arrested Kurt Vanzuuk after a tip for posts on Facebook that identified Johnson as a hero and called for police to be killed. He was charged with inciting injury to persons or property.
An Illinois woman, Jenesis Reynolds, was arrested for writing in a Facebook post that she would shoot an officer who would pull her over. “I have no problem shooting a cop for simple traffic stop cuz they’d have no problem doing it to me,” she wrote, according to the police investigation. She was charged with disorderly conduct.
In New Jersey, Rolando Medina was arrested and charged with cyber harassment. He allegedly posted on an unidentified form of social media that he would destroy local police headquarters. In Louisiana, Kemonte Gilmore was arrested for an online video where he allegedly threatened a police officer. He was charged with public intimidation.
Arresting people for speech is problematic, especially when the content of the communications doesn't rise to the level of a "true threat." The Supreme Court's Elonis decision says this distinction is important. It's not enough for a person or persons to subjectively view the communication as threatening. It needs to be viewed through the "reasonable person" lens.
In these cases, perception appears to be everything. In the wake of the Dallas shooting, it's entirely normal for police officers to view the world a little differently. But this altered view -- one that's likely to be less skewed as time goes on -- can't be allowed to override the First Amendment and deprive individuals of their freedom to speak, not to mention their actual freedom.
And just as certainly as law enforcement officers and officials are likely to view certain acts of blowhardiness as threatening in the immediate aftermath of a shooting targeting police officers, certain citizens are likely to vent their frustration and anger in particularly stupid ways, but without the intention or ability to carry out the perceived threat. Caution should be exercised on both sides of the interaction. However, those with the power to arrest, detain, and charge citizens for stupidity should be the more cautious of the two parties -- simply because they still hold the power, despite recent events.
Those in power should also take care to carry this out with some sort of consistency, if that's the route they're choosing to take. It can't just be deployed against a bunch of nobodies who mouthed off about their contempt for law enforcement. If this is how it's going to be handled, those who speak with the same rhetoric in defense of law enforcement need to be held accountable. Former congressional rep Joe Walsh tweeted out that this was now "war on Obama" after the Dallas shootings and yet no one showed up at his door to arrest him for threatening the President. It's bad enough that power is being misused to silence criticism of law enforcement violence. It's even worse when this power is deployed in a hypocritical fashion.