A tip routed to a regional intelligence center led to Carter’s arrest, Mr. Flanary says. “I can see how law enforcement can be sensitive to those kinds of comments, and I’m glad that there’s a system to catch it,” he adds. But for Carter to be jailed for months based on Facebook comments taken out of context, with bail set at $500,000 – about five times higher than many murder cases – is an injustice, he says.
This isn’t the first time a teen Facebook post has led to charges of making threats. In Massachusetts this spring, an 18-year-old was arrested for a comment referring to bombing and murder, but a grand jury determined it was in the context of rap lyrics he was writing rather than a genuine threat.
There’s no widespread trend of such cases, “but even a handful of cases where Americans lose their liberty for intemperate postings should get our attention,” says Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum in Washington and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “There are safeguards that should lead to a critical analysis of provocative speech,” he says.
In Carter’s case, Mr. Paulson says, it seems like “the entire [legal] system has overreacted to this post.”
It’s also one example of the myriad ways people are stumbling into trouble for behavior that has a wider audience on the Internet but would never get people into trouble back in the day when trash-talking simply took place in the living room as people played a violent video game, or when drunkenness was witnessed only by a few friends at a party.
Societally, people may want to steer fellow citizens away from using violent imagery in their online comments, but when it comes to police involvement, “it’s critical that we ensure their constitutional rights are protected, and free speech is at the core of that,” Paulson says.
A hearing to reconsider Carter’s bail is set for July 16.