Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Free Speech and Criminal Speech: Where Do We Draw The Line?

This morning this video caught my eye, mainly because it made me think about something at 7am when I would have much rathered watch something mindless with my morning stay-awake-or-you'll-spill-it-and-burn-yourself tea. It involves the very fine line between protected free speech and criminal, dangerous speech.

It involves a young man whose car gets towed from the college that he attends, and in the process of towing his car someone found a note inside which read:

If this account doesn't reach 50,000 in the next seven days 
then a murderous rampage similar to the VT shootings 
will occur at another highly populated university 
This is no joke

He claims they are rap lyrics, authorities thought otherwise, compounded with the fact that he is in posession of a gun and is also in the process of buying other ones on the internet, and promptly arrested him. The question is, should he have been? Was his freedom of speech violated?

First of all I wrote the "lyrics" down in order to confirm my initial suspicion: they don't rhyme (except maybe "days" and "rampage", but it's a stretch). Rapping without rhyming is, well, talking. Also I resent Jayar saying that they look just like Eminem lyrics, you may not like his music but he happens to be a master at rhyming.

Anyway, I have to disagree with the hosts a bit more on their opinion of this. Of course the man's attorney is trying to get the case thrown out because the note was not directed at a specific target, it did not outline or detail a plan of any kind, therefore it still classifies as protected speech. After a little thought I think I agree with his lawyer.

Ana argues that they should continue to investigate this man because there is the possibility that the note was, as it stated, "not a joke". However, you do not need to keep someone under arrest in order to investigate them. I think that the police should have investigated further before arresting him, since if a good judge realizes that they had no grounds for arresting him in the first place they will throw the whole case out and it could hurt their chances of prosecuting him in the future, if he turns out to be a criminal (also I think that if anything should be illegal in this case it should be to buy numerous weapons online, but in the US it is not and so that is a story for another day).

Despite the fact that, when I first heard the story I thought ARREST HIM!, I realized later that upon further reflection I don't agree with that gut reaction at all. Sometimes the fine lines that are drawn in the law seem arbitrary, but they really help when it comes down to making borderline decisions such as this one. If he did not break any laws they have no right to keep him under arrest. They can investigate him and see if they can find something that would give them the right to do so, they could question him to see if he is obviously unstable, but they can't arrest him for not breaking the law (is it even legal for them to be going through his things in his car and reading his notes when they were just towing it? Do let me know).

Initially I thought it was probably something he was going to post on his youtube channel or social media page, as in if I don't get 50,000 subscribers or 50,000 likes or 50,000 hits or whatever then I will do blablabla. Whether or not he would ever follow through with such a threat I can't have the faintest idea. The point is that I don't think he should have been arrested for it, nor do I think they should even be considering bringing him to trial for writing some words on a sheet of paper.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

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