The New York Times ran a fairly terrifying story on Wednesday about the increasing regularity with which young people who make allegedly threatening statements on Facebook or Twitter are being charged with felonies. Appropriately titled “140 Characters Spell Charges and Jail,” the article specifically focuses on those luckless souls who have had their lives destroyed after being caught posting about assassinating President Obama.
It’s unacceptable with events like Boston and all this crazy stuff going on. Joking or not, we’re going to take it serious.
This is the kind of honesty that we would never hear from a skilled political operator. Garcia is expressly stating that, in light of “events like Boston” and other, unspecified “crazy stuff,” authorities must step up the ferocity with which they address cases relating to “threatening” speech. In other words, in this scary, post-Boston world, we are left no choice but to arrest teenage girls for their mindless Facebook posts, because Terrorism. In D’Ambrosio’s case, it was quite apparent that, coming just days after the Marathon bombing, and with D’Ambrosio even referencing that attack in his so-called “threat,” absolutely no chances would be taken. After all, one can never be sure that the next 9/11 isn’t being masterminded on the pages of this kid’s notebook, as he sits in his middle-class home, primed to strike after skillfully deceiving us all with good behavior for his entire life.
This is absolute lunacy. Authorities in these cases seemingly make no distinctions based on age, record of behavior, possession (or lack thereof) of weapons, mental health, or anything else. In March, in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a 13-year-old boy was charged with eleven counts of Terroristic Threats after being found composing a “kill list” consisting of some classmates and teachers. (No one told the poor lad that there is only one American citizen who is permitted a kill list.) What will possibly become of this child? Is it morally responsible to wreck his life before he even reaches high school because of one single instance of victimless stupidity?
A Google search reveals dozens of similar cases across the country. This crackdown on Internet speech, largely targeting the young, is radically misguided. It takes a sledgehammer to the First Amendment and arbitrarily determines which speech is “threatening” and which is not (Eminem’s many lyrics conveying his plans to commit murder are considered harmless entertainment – which they are – but Cameron D’Ambrosio’s represented serious “intent”). It puts young people and their families through a legal nightmare straight out of Kafka, resulting in financial ruin and incalculable social and reputational damage. It takes more youths who have committed victimless “crimes” and tosses them and their futures into the merciless American Prison State.
Children being arrested and called Terrorists, bail amounts set at hundreds of thousands of dollars, multiple felonies, long prison sentences: we have lost our minds. This is a flagrantly excessive and destructive assault on free speech that is racking up an impressive count of victims. Our elected leaders have gone berserk over the virtually nonexistent threat of Terrorism and they are quite obviously willing to sacrifice our most cherished values – from privacy, to due process, to free speech – at the altar of Keeping Us Safe. The national obsession with Terrorism and Safety, which encompasses all levels of government and a substantial part of the public, is now driving us to previously unseen levels of irrationality and authoritarianism.
Justin Doolittle writes a political blog called Crimethink. He has an M.A. in public policy from Stony Brook University and a B.A. in political science from Coastal Carolina University.