I know what some of you are thinking: “He’s finally lost his mind. Could Mr. Free Speech be condoning censorship?”
You’d be jumping to an incorrect conclusion on both counts. Let me explain.
We know that censorship comes in any form and across any medium. Neither is it isolated to any demographic or national border. We have censorship from outside sources such as administrations, political groups, and concerned parents both malicious and well meaning.
However, we also have varying levels of self-censorship that come from within our own psyche. This can be conscious, calculated, and lucid, or hidden within the darkest recesses of our being, sometimes seizing control of our otherwise calm and collected manners- fueled more by emotion than reason. I even talked at length about this subject a few weeks ago. It is this aspect of our culture that I find myself pondering more and more, especially in light of an incident that was recently brought to my attention via the National Coalition Against Censorship.
Show of hands: Have you ever come home from a long, frustrating day, having dealt with peers, coworkers, bosses, or the idiot on the road in front of you? Have you ever just reached that boiling point like a pressure cooker that’s been steaming all day and lashed out at someone- or no one at all? Of course you have. We all have. We’ve all said and done stupid things in a fit of rage or impulsivity at one time or another. Anyone who says any different is in denial and a liar.
Most of the time we might get wide-eyed stares or end up hurting a loved one’s feelings as a result of those bursts of anger; sometimes we could even lose our job over them. It’s an unfortunate scenario that plays out everywhere and every day. But have you ever spent 5 months in jail awaiting trial because your family couldn’t scrape together the $500,000 bail due to an irresponsible outburst you made on Facebook?
My guess is that the majority of you have put your hands down at this point.
Welcome to the strange life of 19-year-old Justin Carter.
He’s in the Comal County, Texas jail awaiting trial for what court documents have called the “terroristic threat” he made on his Facebook page. It read:
“I’m fucked in the head alright / 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.”
Was it a cold, calculated threat, or a tasteless, immature rant meant to be more humorous or attention seeking than a declaration of intent to threaten or disrupt?
Carter’s parents and his attorneys are trying to frame the comment in just such a context.
The statement, they explain, was the result of a gaming feud between Carter and another player of the popular online game “League of Legends.” The defense alleges that he followed his comment with “JK” (just kidding), which, if true, would all but resolve the case, but police deny that any “JK” disclaimer was present in the post.
If this was a true precursor of the events alleged, then this is just a competitive, chest-beating boast of “I’m a madman, don’t mess with me.”
Ever watched someone play, or played, yourself, just such an online game? That sort of outburst is hardly rare in the gaming sub-culture. Just how frustrated do some of you get when playing Candy Crush? I’m not excusing the language or the behavior, just explaining that it isn’t an isolated display.
You should’ve heard me in my days of playing Star Trek: Elite Force. I’d yell things at the screen that make this kid’s Facebook rant look like a poem from Mister Rogers. Luckily, I’ve mellowed in my later years. Let’s leave the “game culture” debate on the back burner for now, though.
Every day I see frustrated status messages on social media along the same lines as “I’m going to kill the next idiot that pisses me off!” or “My boss/family member/coworker is an asshole and one of these days I’ll [insert rash action here]!” I’d be willing to bet that they show up in your own news feed all the time. Maybe you were the one to post such a thing as the result of traffic, neighbors, or whatever.
If that’s all it took to claim a terrorism threat, then Facebook and Twitter are the world’s largest terrorist training camps and every citizen who dared step foot inside the digital realm belongs in a hospital getting a IV drip of Haldol and Ativan with an armed guard outside of their door.
Good thing we have the Texas Penal Code defining a terroristic threat to keep us informed and level headed in this matter. The short of it is that the law defines a terroristic threat as “any threat of violence intended to cause fear, public or private disruptions, or impairment of emergency services or public resources.”
Most often, these “terroristic threats” are aimed at specific individuals such as exes, spouses, partners (both business and domestic), or other authority figures; but the term encompasses bomb threats or threats of poisoning, sabotage, or “intention to commit violence in a manner detailed enough to result in the closing or diverting of services or places deemed to be at risk.”
Texas courts have clarified that charges of this crime require proof that the person making the threat intended to place a person or group of people in fear of imminent bodily injury.
Taken within the context provided by his defense, it would seem the only person meant to feel threatened by Carter’s statement would be whoever the gamer was who initiated the trash talking. In a nutshell, it’s being argued that Carter only meant to instill a “fear of losing” in someone, a competitive act that is obviously protected under the First Amendment.
What did Mike Tyson say to Lennox Lewis? “I want your heart. I want to eat your children”? Good thing for Lewis that Tyson only eats ears.
Since 9/11, and more recently thanks to the Boston Marathon bombing, checks have been put in place to flag the kind of speech that would suggest a potential and credible crime or act of terrorism.
Justin Carter has been sitting in jail cell for 5 months now for online speech that, while definitely insensitive, reckless, and stupid, was not a terrorist threat. Most incidents of this kind of rant are quickly scrolled over and lost amid the far reaches of cyberspace or left on the highway and laughed off as a ridiculous case of road rage.
While I believe that it was a thoughtless, harmless comment made by a young adult in a fit of anger or ego-stroking, it doesn’t excuse its insensitivity, immaturity, or stupidity. I can understand the fact that it wasn’t meant to be serious, but the inclusion of a “just joking” does not excuse him.
We could send this kid to counseling; monitor him for however long is deemed appropriate; or subject him to an inpatient ward with a team of psychological super doctors to perform an endless battery of tests and analyses, but for better or worse, rhetoric like his- no matter how violent- is protected speech under the First Amendment.
I’m the first person that would say that the freedom of speech should not be infringed upon- ever, – but I also concede that there are acceptable limits to that freedom. This is why I find myself straddling the fence on this one, agreeing with valid points from both sides of the courtroom.
What if I had a bad day and decided to share a dark verse from a well-known song as my status to let my friends know just what kind of mood I’m in? Someone could happen along that takes those lyrics out of context and the next thing you know, I’m sitting in a cell next to Carter, shaking my head and saying, “What the fuck just happened?”
Neither is a clear threat meant to bring public services to a grinding halt. They are simple examples of someone exercising their right to express themself. I have a right to say what I want, when I want, and how I want; that is under my control. What I can’t control is how others interpret it.
Which is why I admit that there are tolerable limits to free speech and that you can’t go around shouting “fire” in a theatre. Why? Because it causes panic and could result in serious injury.
This case is akin to that scenario, because these days people are wound up tighter than the spring-loaded wheels of a penny racer car, ready to go off at any time when the slightest hint of danger presents itself.
The difference I see is that a crowded theatre has the element of being in the here and now, subject to immediate reaction; a comment made online has the advantage of time on its side so that people can chime in with a “Dude, are you serious? What’s wrong?” It allows for discussion and for calm thinking to prevail over rash action.
Some legal precedents for this kind of case suggest that Carter could end up with a not-guilty verdict, which is a good thing; because I’d hate to see a young life wasted over five minutes of foolishness.
In 2004, the California Supreme Court heard a case about a high school student’s poem that referred to a possible school shooting. The court’s statement was as follows:
“We consider in this case whether a high school student made a criminal threat by giving two classmates a poem labeled ‘Dark Poetry,’ which recites in part, ‘I am Dark, Destructive, & Dangerous. I slap on my face of happiness but inside I am evil!! For I can be the next kid to bring guns to kill students at school. So parents watch your children cuz I’m BACK!!’ For the reasons below, we conclude that the ambiguous nature of the poem, along with the circumstances surrounding its dissemination, fail to establish that the poem constituted a criminal threat.”
This verdict makes a statement similar to the Carter case. The stark difference is that Justin Carter continues to suffer in custody as a result of the high bail that many attorneys and legal experts agree is simply unheard of.
Even if proven innocent of making a terrorist threat, this case could also set a chilling precedent concerning the effects of web surveillance. Intensify that by the heightened sensitivity to violent remarks and free speech on the web may cease to be.
The Carter case appears to be a gross overreaction that does more to eat away our rights than it does to protect us. If speech is going to be treated and acted upon with so little attention to detail, then we all should be very concerned about the longevity of the First Amendment.
That has me very worried and I think you should be, too. Be careful how you respond to this, they are watching.