Monday, March 30, 2009

Media reports prosecutions for "threats" related to Va Tech, other incidents; Internet users should take notice

Starting around 1999, the major media started reporting occasionally people being arrested and prosecuted for transmitting threats by email other otherwise through the Internet, as on webpages or sometimes in user groups. These incidents probably picked up as a result of the Columbine tragedy, and then again after 9/11. There is a website called “The Trenchcoat Chronicles” that, using the blog category feature, provides a long list of such incidents over time, here.

So there is a Metro section story in the Washington Post this morning (Monday March 30, 2009) by Allison Klein about the federal prosecution of Nevada resident Johnmarlo Balasta Napa, for transmitting emails, reported as threatening, to two Virginia Tech students right before the anniversary of the tragedy sprung April 16, 2007 by Seung Hui Cho. The Post link is here. The newspaper story (perhaps out of prudence) does not reproduce the text of the emails (other than to say that it included reproduction of some of Cho’s “manifesto” and other violent materials), so one is left to presume that the words really did convey intention to do harm. But the public defender is making the perhaps bizarre claim that the defendant intended to “initiate a discussion on the causes of school violence.” The arrests and indictment were apparently based on the emails, but subsequent police and federal investigation showed that the person had a cache of weapons. But the cache, while it might "eventually" generate separate illegal weapons possession charges (actually, law enforcement admitted that so far the weapons appeared to have been acquired lawfully), doesn’t seem related to the original accusations. Napa has been held without bail since April 2008.

The FBI’s website (Richmond, VA office) has a report on the indictment, on May 22, 2008, here.

The Post story also mentions the conviction of Steven Voneida, who had apparently been a student at Penn State in Harrisburg, for making a related threat on his Myspace posting. The Penn State Daily Collegian has a more detailed story, Feb.13, 2008, by Katharine Lackey, “Student convicted for Myspace post”, here. The posting did contain an “existential” judgment that itself (however offensive) should have been protected by the First Amendment but also made another alarming statement that most reasonable people might take as predictive of future behavior ((look up the “fighting words” doctrine on Wikipedia). The material included a violent “poem” which apparently was authored by the speaker or extracted from Cho's "ballad". Apparently another Penn State student notified police, but the speaker had apparently removed some of the material (after warnings from the campus authorities) before the arrest.

All of this relates to the question of “implicit content”, which I’ve discussed sometimes on my main blog and my COPA blog.

VPI professor Lucinda Roy has an upcoming book “No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech” (Harmony Books, due March 31), reviewed by Dave Cullen in the Washington Post Sunday, here. Roy warns about the signals of “violent inclinations in advance, often in fiction, poetry or other creative outlets.”

All of this is a huge problem for school officials, most of all public schools, and to some extents colleges and universities, who necessarily have a short fuse in how they interpret alarming material posted on the Internet by students, even from off campus. The Newsweum First Amendment exhibit in Washington DC takes up this problem (the “When is a doodle dangerous” placard on level 5).

But Internet users (when sending emails or making public posts) need to be wary of the “intention” that may be read by others into their posts apart from the literal or “ironic” meaning of the content. I encountered this problem myself on another issue in 2005 (see the main blog, July 27, 2007 post and follow the categories).

Note: the Blogger profile contains the links to other blogs which also take up these kinds of problems, and each blog has a category list.

Update: April 29, 2009

The Washington Post reported today, in an article by Allison Klein, that Johnmarlo Balasta Napa had plead guilty April 28 to the charges discussed above, story here.

Update: July 13

According to a story by Sue Lindsey, the man was released from jail on condition of receiving psychiatric treatment, AP link here.

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