In an article titled "140 Characters Spell Charges and Jail," journalist Robbie Brown shares the story of Jarvis Britton, a 26 year old Alabama resident who was recently sentenced to federal prison for threatening to assassinate President Obama via Twitter. Apparently Britton made threats via Twitter in the past and was apprehended by the feds, but was released when he admitted to being drunk and apologized. However, he posted more threats a second time and was arrested and sentenced.
According the article, Secret Service and other government intelligence agencies are beginning to get more tips for possible threats by watching social media. The Secret Service even has its own Twitter account so that people can tweet to report things to them as well. Apparently the Secret Service investigates about ten threats a day, but they will not share their sources.
However, with the eye of big brother ever growing with the onset of new technologies, Brown writes, "Privacy advocates worry that remarks intended for friends and
followers may be misinterpreted in a courtroom or that carelessly typed
posts will be seen in the same light as letters mailed to the White
House." This harkens back to our classroom conversation (and Fairclough's conversation) about the "facade" of our First Amendment rights. Even Brown writes, "The cases based on such threats should be a reminder that there are
limits on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, said Mr.
Burgess, the defense lawyer. 'Whether you meant it as a joke or not,' he
said, 'a Twitter message takes on a whole new meaning when it’s read in
Disclaimer, in case the feds read this because apparently they are looking: let me say that I personally think threatening the POTUS in any situation is unacceptable. Regardless of whether or not I voted, and whether or not I support/agree with the President, I don't want our President hurt or dead. #IheartAmerica
But for the sake of academic discussion, this article stirs up some interesting points. As we have discussed, the First Amendment definitely does have its limits, but who gets to decide what those limits are? I'm okay with not being allowed to threaten the President or yell "fire" in a crowded building, but, frankly, I don't make the rules and what happens when the First Amendment "rules" change?
This article made me think of the Arab Spring incident that we researched earlier in our class. Like in many situations where a peoples' voice is silenced by traditional media and government, websites like Twitter serve almost as a great equalizer among voices. In countries like Egypt and Turkey we have recently seen how the country's media blacked out protests, but through social media sites like Twitter, protesters were able to document and share their stories. Even in our own country, award winning journalist Amber Lyon was fired from CNN when she (claims and I believe) was told to censor her coverage of Benghazi as the Obama Administration was either blocking or paying CNN to block certain stories. She is an avid twitter user and without social media, she would not really have a voice as she has been blackballed by traditional media outlets. Furthermore, In a day and age when the President also has the authority to send a drone to kill American citizens without a trial, should we be concerned that a strongly worded political tweet could be potentially misinterpreted and could end up getting us thrown in prison or worse, dead?
I fully realize that this last paragraph makes me sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I think it's a valid discussion worth having. While I don't think threats should necessarily go unpunished and I don't want some jerk yelling "fire" in a crowded mall or "bomb" on an airplane, what happens if the socially agreed upon and "logical" limitations of the First Amendment begin to change in a way that benefits the government and not the people? Who really holds the power in the language of the First Amendment? Furthermore, is the Internet really an equalizing tool? Or is it just another method for the powers that be to watch us all a little more closely?