Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Texas teen jailed after Facebook "threat" is taken literally and out of context

The possibility of facing arrest and prosecution because a sarcastic comment made online, in social media or maybe even a conventional blog or website, needs to be taken seriously.

Justin Carter, 19 was arrested in February in 2013 Comal County near San Antonio, Texas. He has been held in jail, pending $500000 bond, awaiting trial.

In December, in an argument over a video game (“League of Legends”) with an online acquaintance, he had written, on Facebook,  a statement that taken very literally, might sound like a threat to carry out a school shooting.  From the context, however, most people would probably understand it as sarcastic, if perhaps offensive now. It’s common to refer to this sort of exchange as “trash talk”. The family was reported as living near an elementary school -- but in a metropolitan or suburban area, who doesn't?
A woman in Canada noticed the posting, took it literally, and called police. Apparently the posting had been allowed to be public (not restricted to friends or whitelisted). 
CNN has a detailed and disturbing story and video by Doug Gross about the case here. CNN also offers several blog postings including comments by the father. CNN covered the story July 3 on the CNN “New Day” show.

NPR has a similar story, which reports a grand jury indictment, here, in its "Tech Matters" column. NPR reports that the teen's dad says the teen has been beaten up in jail.  It is noteworthy that this seems to be a state prosecution, and federal prosecutors did not seem to be involved. 

NPR reports a petition for Carter’s release.
The offense, under Texas law, could carry eight years in prison.
Prosecutors and law enforcement reportedly feel caught in a bind, with possible “political consequences” for letting him go, so soon after the notoriety of the Newtown, CT incident December 14.

Would the lack of an arsenal of weapons (which hopefully is the case) make law enforcement more comfortable?

The Facebook conversation might well have occurred before the Sandy Hook incident.

The whole case could be viewed in the context of the NSA leaks.  Metadata would allow the NSA to know of someone (like a Holmes in Colorado) had suddenly started accumulating an arsenal.  Maybe this can be shared with law enforcement, but that sounds murky.   

It is very easy for Internet content, posted in a free-entry and “it’s free” environment, to be interpreted out of context, especially by law enforcement or school officials who believe they are under political pressure from the public over scares about public safety or child welfare.  I had talked about that on the main “BillBoushka” blog, July 27. 2007, about an incident that happened when I was substitute teaching in 2005. Things calmed down when officials bothered to look at related postings establishing a context.  Police seem to be treating this Facebook case the way the TSA would treat “jokes” in the security line at the airport. It's interesting, though, that local or state authorities seem more sensitive than federal on this one.    

Update: July 7

The legal guys (Fisher and Herrmann) covered this problem on Saturday on CNN.  Both thought this was overzealous prosecution based on public emotion.  There reports that the Facebook posting contained lines like "JK" and "LOL".

What if someone makes a threat in a comment on a blog (or forum)?  Would Section 230 protect the host?  Would it matter if comments were monitored?.  Sounds like an important line of questions.

Update: Dec. 5

Here is a case in Maryland where discussing an attack against judges on Facebook contributed to a conviction and prison sentence, WJLA story here.  

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