The easiest way for people to accidentally commit a crime is by
misunderstanding their rights, and then acting on those misunderstandings
The First Amendment in the U.S. Constitution (the one that covers freedom of speech, the press, protest, etc.) protects a lot of your speech from criminal punishment by the government. While a lot of speech is considered legal, there are some limits to what you can say in a public space, the internet included.
Speech is only protected until there is a threat of violence on a specific person or group, in which case it becomes a criminal threat, which can be criminally charged in most states. With school shootings and threats of shootings becoming more and more common across the country, the tolerance for threats (even over the internet) has dropped to absolute zero within law enforcement.
Sometimes even a crude joke can lead to disastrous consequences for your future.
In Carson City, Nevada, schools in the county shut down a day early for winter break in 2021 because of threats on social media towards the school. A student posted on their Snapchat story warning students not to come to school on December 17th because of their plans for a school shooting. The threat was later found to not be real, and posted by someone from outside the state, but the school district and the officers still took it as a credible threat until verified, costing time and energy from both groups that could have been used on other problems.
The school district has vowed serious consequences for anyone making threats, with the possibility of criminal prosecution on top of being expelled from school. In Nevada, it’s not only illegal to make threats of violence, but it’s also illegal to make false threats and waste government resources. Because of how seriously these threats are taken, you could not only be facing charges in your state, but you could be facing federal charges as well for any school shooting threat. In Nevada, making a terrorist threat is a category B felony, and nationally, making any sort of hoax threat is a federal crime, and both could lead to prison time and severe fines. On top of that, because of the two different charges (state and federal), you would be required to go through two different trials and face two different punishments that must be served one after the other.
The sheer number of posts on social media can make most of them seem unimportant. However, posting the wrong thing can bring serious civil and criminal consequences, and there’s no hope of deleting it once it’s out there.
Some states have created “Red Flag” laws that mark dangerous comments and behavior in the hope of stopping mass violence before it starts. In Florida in August of 2019, a high schooler was arrested for a school shooting threat over a Discord chat, a popular platform for chat rooms. The student swore to bring his father’s automatic rifle to his high school and kill at least seven people. The chat was reported by someone, and it was later referred to the local Florida Sheriff’s department, with the name and information of the user associated with the account. In Florida, threatening to commit a mass shooting, even without actual intent, is a felony, and could mean several years in jail and huge fines.
In America, the protections that the First Amendment offers allows us to mostly say whatever we want, with very few limitations when compared with the rest of the world. However, threatening to hurt a person or a group is not only an unethical thing to do, but it’s also not protected by the First Amendment. That means that there’s no restriction from the government arresting you and charging you with a crime.
The First Amendment may give us all the right to free speech, but with that right comes a responsibility to use the right as intended. With so much misunderstanding about what the First Amendment covers, it’s easy to think that anything you say is protected by the Constitution.
However, the First Amendment was created to protect political speech and disagreement, not to protect insults and threats. The Supreme Court has made it very clear through court cases like Schenck v. United States and Brandenburg v. Ohio that speech that could cause a panic, potential harm, or “imminent lawless action”, such as a threat or shouting fire in a crowded theater, is not protected speech. Not knowing the extent of your rights is not an excuse to violate the rights of others.
You should always think before you say or post something that could be interpreted the wrong way. This doesn’t mean that you should never post online or interact with others, it just means that it’s best to be cautious with what you say, as it can easily end up hurting yourself and others.
Be sure to provide full explanations for each of your answers. For more details, you can read the articles this piece was sourced from here:
Contributed by: Ethan Champagne
Edited by: Mike Kamer