It's easier than ever to lose your temper and let everyone know it all at the same time through the magic of social media—however, if you communicate the wrong thing, you could easily end up facing federal charges. While the First Amendment protects free speech, that protection only goes so far. This is what you need to know about how to avoid turning a Facebook rant into a criminal case before you post.
Are you threatening a specific person or group?
if you make threats or call for violence against a specific person or group, you may very well be breaking the law—and the police generally have several choices of charges at their disposal, depending on the circumstances.
For example, a woman from Atlanta, Georgia, thought that a fake name would protect her identity when she posted a statement saying that all black people should start shooting all the white police officers in the nation. Her fake identity did nothing to protect her—the FBI and Homeland Security were easily able to trace the post back to her and charge her with disseminating information related to terrorist acts, a felony.
A man from Denver, Colorado, faces charges of harassment involving the use of a computer for angry posts that threatened the lives of a state lawmaker. Upset about the upcoming election, Dylan Hopkins sent Sen. Laura Woods messages on a secondary Facebook account that threatened to shoot her and her family.
A Florida man communicated his anger against the LGBT community by referencing the Orlando massacre and making threats about the upcoming Labor Day weekend. He's now under arrest for violating a federal law against communications containing any threat to kidnap or injure another person. If convicted, he faces a fine and up to five years in prison.
While these charges vary slightly in their specifics, they're all serious complaints that could result in felony convictions, primarily because they communicate specific threats against a group or individual. That's the specific action that takes each of these posts over the line from a mere "rant" to major trouble for its poster.
Is your post merely general and not specifically calling for action?
A recent Supreme Court decision made a fine-line distinction between online rants that were more general in nature—even though they were disturbing—because they didn't contain "true threats" when judged by a reasonable standard. The poster, angry at his ex-wife, considered his rants to be therapeutic lyrics, not actual threats, and the court agreed.
In general, to avoid charges, consider the following:
- Don't explicitly call for action or indicate that you intend to take violent action against an individual or group.
- Don't name the specific target of your anger.
- Don't attempt to hide your identity (since that is likely to attract more attention and draw your motives into deeper question)
If you do make a mistake and let anger take you too far, consider contacting a felony defense attorney right away to discuss your case.