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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What freedom of speech do people have when making threats online? | CBS 21 News

Referring to a barrage of offensive tweets on Twitter about George Zimmerman, the accused killer of a black teenager in Florida, this TV news story asks, "When does freedom of speech become illegal hate speech?"

Apparently, Twitter's rules are clear:
You may not publish or post direct, specific threats of violence against others.
The story quotes a local district attorney in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania:
These are very tough issues for law enforcement because we don't want to make light of any threat to any person to use any sort of force. ... In my line of work, people say a lot of things and rarely act on it.
But it also quotes a local law professor:
You don't have a Constitutional right to make threats. But you do have a constitutional right to express political hyperbole even in violent terms. The question is whether a reasonable person would be in fear of someone who makes these kinds of statements.
The professor also questions whether the offensive tweets violate Twitter's rules:
It's not a direct threat, even though some of the items are phrased as threats there is a certain amount of hyperbole in there. 
I'd like to point out that our First Amendment rights of free speech don't apply directly to Twitter. It's a private company, and it has a right to restrict, even censor, posts by its users. The First Amendment clearly applies to government censorship and control.

The jury is still out on this case, so to speak, and these opinions are from just one community. But the story ends:
So even thought technically these tweets are apparently protected speech, if something would happen to George Zimmerman the police would certainly be looking carefully at them. And even if they are hyperbole, how would a prospective employer see such a hate-filled tweet?
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