Yet another case is making its way through federal court in which social media comments have been taken as legitimate threats. A Pennsylvania man stands accused of serious federal charges after he posted comments on Facebook that, while distasteful, may have been interpreted a bit too literally. The case may serve to clarify the issue of free speech in relation to the public good.
The 19-year-old man was exchanging comments with another Facebook user when a third party saw the messages and became concerned. A report was made, and Cambria County police became involved. The man was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and making terroristic threats.
The subject matter of the messages was in poor taste by virtually any standard. In trying to make humorous comments about a debate, the young man stated that his disapproval was so extreme that he felt like blowing up a preschool. He went on to dryly suggest that wounded and bloody children would give him satisfaction. In reading these comments, it is easy to see how some could find them distressing. However, it is also easy to see why others would recognize them as hyperbole and a form of satire.
As the case moves on, a court will likely weigh the right of free speech against the need to protect the public. In similar cases, the courts have focused on whether the comments could be perceived as legitimate threats. When prosecutors have been unable to prove that social media posts were intended as threats, the charges were dropped or convictions reversed. Many in Pennsylvania will follow this case to see how these new federal charges play out in court.
Source: mcall.com, "Feds charge Pa. man in 'dark' humor preschool threat on Facebook", Joe Mandak, Aug. 26, 2015