Social media has become deeply integrated into American culture — especially among young people. While the law is generally a few steps behind real-world changes, the national focus on terrorism and violence in the schools and other public places has forced legislation into being rather rapidly, particularly concerning anything that might be considered a “terroristic threat” or online bullying.
Is it really against the law to blow off some steam online?
It depends on exactly what you say. Florida is one of the many states that have adopted laws designed to punish both terroristic threats and online bullying. Prosecutors generally don’t have to prove that you had any actual intention of carrying out your threats — merely that you made one.
That’s a big surprise to a lot of defendants who are used to the idea that words aren’t really meaningful. Those young people that thrive on social media are often the same people who find out the hard way that a rash comment online can attract police attention and result in felony charges.
What kinds of things can be labeled terroristic threats or acts of online bullying? Consider these:
- Posting pictures (including those digitally altered) online that show the targeted victim deceased or mutilated
- Posting a threat online to bomb a school or building
- Encouraging others to harass or bully someone for any reason
- Adopting someone’s identity online in order to pose as that person and create problems for them
- Threatening someone (or their family) with physical harm
- Threatening to damage someone’s personal property or pets
Because this issue has become a national hot-button, it’s wise to seek legal advice the moment that you find out that your online activity is being examined by authorities. There are a number of valid defenses available, because the context of your speech is very important. For example, if you were being sarcastic or trying to make a joke, an out-of-context post could look far worse than it really was.
It’s important not to assume that your right to free speech will protect you from charges — it doesn’t always work that way, especially when there’s a lot of media attention focused on the issue.