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.)