Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Football player at Wake Forest gets in trouble over interpretation of his Facebook posting

There is another story about the fact that both public school and university officials now have to take a “zero tolerance” approach to “threats”, even implied ones, even when posted on social networking profiles or blogs owned by students, teachers, or any others.

The original story concerned a Wake Forest University (in Winston Salem, about 100 miles north of Charlotte) football player (Lucas Caparelli, a graduate of Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County) and a brief appeared on ESPN in later January, concerning an incident Jan. 14. The students was detained by campus police that day for writing on Jan. 13 a sarcastic note and poem that were perceived as a “threat” on his own Facebook profile. Taken at face value, at least one sentence (mentioning a “uzi”) could be taken as such. The rest of the posting is obvious parody and sarcasm. The original AP story appeared on ESPN here.

The detailed analytical story appears in the Sports section E1 of The Washington Post this morning, by Preston Williams, “In an instant, message has a lasting impact, online posting leads to suspension.” The long story is here and offers a slide show about the football player. Ironically, individual slides may be “purchased” from the Post.

The story includes the text of the note, which is written in the third person (as noted by AP). The third person wordage might have been intended to make the posting "fictive" and apparent to be a "hoax."

He was suspended from school, and county district attorneys in North Carolina are considering whether to prosecute. Since the message was posted from a computer in Virginia, it would sound as if there could be federal issues, but there are no reports of interest in federal prosecution. Actual prosecution would depend on application of an applicable statute as it is worded and normally interpreted; in the Internet age, interpretation is quite difficult and varies from court to court and state to state. In many school-related incidents, students are expelled or suspended but, in practice, not prosecuted. According to the news story, the student might be able to reapply next fall after psychological evaluation. There is also the element of the "adolescent brain," which even at age 20, often does not fully calculate or even grasp the potential downstream consequences of statements.

The student resented the attitude of “better off” students whom he feels had not “paid their dues” or earned their place in the world. He felt he was snubbed by them. Communicating social resentment and discomfort at meeting the social expectations of others was apparently his intent.

The Post story has a sidebar by Montana Miller at Bowling Green State University (Kentucky) in which she says “an online poster has to keep in mind how his words will be digested by a vast and often unknown audience.” She indicated that an Internet posting will be done in a particular “frame” (that is, frame of reference) understood by the author and perhaps others in the author’s personal circle, but school officials often do not know what that frame is, and must err on the side of caution. Here, the situation resembles the ban on jokes in airport security lines, because TSA screeners have no way of knowing what to take seriously. Speakers in the general public are in a kind of tug of war: there is instantaneous communication and freedom to speak, but there is a great risk of material being taken out of context because of the continuous media reporting of violent (or sexual) incidents around the country and around the world, especially post 9/11.

Even so, I wonder how John Stossel in ABC 20/20 would react to this case. He might say "Give me a break!"

The reports of "misintepretation" incidents generated by social networking profiles and blogs have accumulated in the past two or three years. Earlier, back in the late 1990s (even before 9/11, but perhaps after Columbine and similar incidents), people were sometimes prosecuted for making "threats" or sending otherwise illegal material by email or through instant messages, but cases caused by content being found by search engines were then less frequent. There were several such email cases in Florida that I recall from 1999.

As some of my visitors know, I was involved in a controversy in 2005 in the Fairfax County Public Schools when I was substituting because of the way a fictitious screenplay I had written and posted on my own website had been interpreted when found (apparently by parents at home). The details are on the July 27 2007 entry here. At issue there is how the law behaves when “fiction” too closely simulates “reality” and when the speaker seems identifiable as a character. This sounds to me like an important and so far unexplored legal question about “implicit content” -- the "It's only a movie" problem.

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