Zero tolerance gone too far: When does a Facebook comment cross the line into a threat?
Sometimes, when you read the basics of a story, it sounds so incredulous, you think “surely, there has to be more to it.” Enter the story of 19-year-old Texan Justin Carter. The quick headlines usually read – Texas Teen Faces Eight Years for Facebook Comment.
Unfortunately for Justin, the post was about shooting up kindergartners. Hence, he was charged with making “terroristic threats” and was for over three months because of a $500,000 bond that recently got paid by an anonymous supporter.
During an online multi-player game of League of Legends when Justin was 18, he got into an argument with someone on Facebook about it. After someone called him messed up in the head, according to the arrest warrant in the case, Justin wrote:
“I’m f–ked in the head alright, I think Ima SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN
“AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT RAIN DOWN
“AND EAT THE BEATING HEART OF ONE OF THEM.”
According to Justin’s family, the next two lines were “lol” and “jk.”
Allegedly, a Canadian woman saw the post and called the police. For more on the story, read here. Surprisingly, that’s about it — the whole story. It does not appear Justin was a real threat, had any past issues, meant for any law enforcement to get involved, or took any actions to carry out the alleged threat.
Instead, he has been charged with a violation of Section 22.007 of the Texas Penal Code which reads:
TERRORISTIC THREAT. (a) A person commits an offense if he threatens to commit any offense involving violence to any person or property with intent to:
(1) cause a reaction of any type to his threat by an official or volunteer agency organized to deal with emergencies;
(2) place any person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury;
(3) prevent or interrupt the occupation or use of a building, room, place of assembly, place to which the public has access, place of employment or occupation, aircraft, automobile, or other form of conveyance, or other public place;
(4) cause impairment or interruption of public communications, public transportation, public water, gas, or power supply or other public service;
(5) place the public or a substantial group of the public in fear of serious bodily injury; or
(6) influence the conduct or activities of a branch or agency of the federal government, the state, or a political subdivision of the state.
. . .
(e) An offense under Subsection (a)(4), (a)(5), or (a)(6) is a felony of the third degree.
The main issue in this case is hilited — Intent. It is not clear whether the prosecutor is going to try and prove a violation of 4, 5, or 6 (we know they are pressing for a third degree felony), but does it really matter? Can anyone prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, Justin intended to scare anyone or get law enforcement involved.
There are real threats made on social media and elsewhere. People that make bomb threats or take other actions meant to scare targeted people or waste law enforcement’s time should be prosecuted. People who have bad taste shouldn’t.
We can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, the comment was in bad taste — but the same may hold true for trying to prosecute the man unless there really is more to this story that has not come out yet.