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Violent Threats Still Considered Unprotected Speech, Even From Menacing 16-Year-Old Boys

When it comes to threats and incitements of violence, the First Amendment doesn’t apply. Courts have long ruled this to be the case, whether those threats are written on Post-Its or screamed in your face. So when a 16-year-old high-schooler took to the website of a 15-year-old then-classmate, whom he believed (wrongly) was gay and, posing as a concerned parent, left comments about wanting to “rip out your … heart and feed it to you” and his urge to “pound your head in with an ice pick,” he doesn’t get to hide behind his free speech rights, a California appeals court just ruled.

It’s easy to lump this case in with other instances of cyber-bullying. One the one hand, it clearly fits the mold: One teen attacks a schoolmate on the web, outside the jursidction of the school. But this is also such a clear cut instance of unprotected speech, it doesn’t matter that it appeared on the web.

The dissenting justice, Frances Rothschild, said no one who read all the messages posted on the Web site – in which youths tried to outdo the others in outrageous insults – would interpret any of them as a serious threat. The case is one of the first in California to examine the boundaries between free expression and so-called cyber-bullying. The court majority said a message that threatens physical harm, even if it wasn’t meant to be serious, loses its First Amendment protection and can be grounds for a lawsuit.

The plaintiff, identified only as D.C., set up a Web site in 2005 to promote an entertainment career after recording an album and starring in a film. Believing – wrongly, the court said – that he was gay, some fellow students at a Los Angeles high school posted comments that mocked him, feigned sexual interest or threatened violence. The boy’s father said he withdrew D.C. from the school, at the suggestion of Los Angeles police, and moved the family to an undisclosed spot in Northern California. D.C. sued six students and their parents, claiming hate crimes, defamation and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The ruling involved a claim by one defendant, a 16-year-old identified as R.R., that the suit interfered with his freedom of speech. In a court filing, R.R. said he didn’t know D.C. personally but was offended by the Web site’s self-promotional tone and “decided to add my own message to the Internet graffiti contest,” posing as a parent who was so offended by D.C.’s singing that he wanted to kill him.

Cyber-bullying’s grayer areas involve less obvious threats. What might constitute harassment in a physical situation — endless teasing, name-calling, rumor spreading — becomes another matter when it happens on Facebook or Twitter.

The defendant’s attorney Rex Beaber says his client plans to appeal to the California Supreme Court, because how could anybody really interpret those threats as “serious”? Well, allow us to call our first expert witness.

(Note: That’s a stock photo, not a shot of anyone involved in the case.)

By:           editor editor
On:           Mar 17, 2010
Tagged: , , , , , , ,
  • 4 Comments
    • terrwill
      terrwill

      R.R. really wants to S.C.

      Mar 17, 2010 at 1:31 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • Bill
      Bill

      It seems that the modern heterosexual’s main purpose in life is to abuse others.

      And to recklessly breed, of course.

      Seriously. I’ll take their abuse for a million lifetimes rather than be one of them.

      Mar 17, 2010 at 1:53 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • DR
      DR

      Your analysis depends on the state you’re in. In the jurisdiction in which I practice, PA, these threats would be seen as a crime. Our statute makes no distinction between meaning the comment and not meaning the comment. This ruling isn’t a surprise to me.

      Mar 17, 2010 at 5:34 pm · @ReplyReply to this comment ·
    • jeffree
      jeffree

      Everyone on facebook calls other people f a g &they say that other people are gay. Thats mean. but as soon as they make threats to hurt you, theres no way to tell if thats a real threat or just someone being cruel & stupid………….

      Just hiding behind your screename thinking your annonymous, well that shouldnt be protected speech because no one can tell if that threat’s real or fake

      if they think its fun just 2 scare people,, you still dont’ know if they’ll do what they say, and so people get scared because some of those threats are really true!

      can any parents say that its O K for their kid to threaeten 2 hurt someone else??
      Parents have no idea what we see or write on facebook myspace ect.

      When i still lived at home my parents would of marched me to the policestation to turn me in if i threatened someone and if they saw or heard about it. i know thats a fact!

      Mar 18, 2010 at 1:05 am · @ReplyReply to this comment ·

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