Posting whatever you want on Facebook might not be a good idea, as in the case of Ebony Dickens of East Point Georgia.
Based on an April 30, 2015 report on CNN, Ebony Dickens, of East Point, Georgia, posted threats to the police under the name, Tiffany Milan, on social media. According to CNN, she posted this on Facebook, “I thought about shooting every white cop I see in the head until I’m either caught by the police or killed by them. Ha!!!! I think I can pull it off. Might kill at least 15 tomorrow, I’m plotting now.”
Soon after Ms. Dickens posted the threats, she deleted her Tiffany Milan Facebook account. She erased all her threatening posts. But that didn’t matter. Erasing the threats didn’t help. She already published them to others. By virtue of her Facebook posts, Ms. Dickens got arrested. She was arrested not only by the local authorities, but by homeland security. Apparently, Ms. Dickens “allegedly” violated local law, but State and Federal law. I say, “allegedly” because Ms. Dickens case is still pending. Even so, it’s important to look at US free speech law and why, oftentimes, comments made on Facebook aren’t protected speech.
Based on this story, making Facebook posts about shooting the cops using a fake name may not be a good idea. Protected and lawful speech, of any kind, does not involve making true threats, using fighting words to incite violence and cyber-bullying. Ranting on Facebook, or anywhere, may not always be a good idea, no matter appealing it may seem to be for some. First Amendment Freedom of Speech law is a not a get-out-of-jail free card for offenses like these. Freedom of Speech rights do not make one immune from arrest and jail. People can also file civil suits against others for making certain kinds of speech.
Under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, people can get arrested for speech involving obscenity, child pornography, misleading commercial speech, fighting words, cyber bullying and true threats. For example, free speech does not include (for no good reason) yelling “fire” in a crowded theater. This is a classic example. People get arrested and end up in jail for telling others, “I’m going to kill you.” Also, making up stories about others is not always harmless. For example, telling someone your friend has “Ebola,” or somethings similar, when in fact they do not, can get a person in a lot of legal trouble.
In the business world, free speech does not include making unsupported claims. When a commercial producer claims their product “builds strong bodies 12 ways,” or wants to show that their product is healthy, the producer and all the stakeholders better support this sort of claim with strong evidence. Commercial claims may be unprotected speech, provided there is no proof behind such claims.
Cartoons and political satire, like the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed, is an example of a form of US free speech. Under US law, cartoonists and artists may publish political cartoons and politically charged satire. This is considered protected free speech. Under the laws of other countries, such cartoonist speech is not always protected. Whether or not political cartoons are always wise or prudent to publish remains controversial. Even so, there is no complete list of US constitutional freedom of speech examples that explain what does or does not constitute freedom of speech.
Concerning freedom of speech and the laws of free speech, each situation and every fact pattern is not the same. Each person and each legal case is different. This is why a professional legal analysis of every situation is important. This type of case-by-case basis legal examination is what legal professionals call, “fact-intensive” legal analysis. Fact intensive legal analysis is what lawyers and judges are trained to do. This is why it’s always important to consult your lawyer and be sure to ask them any legal questions regarding freedom of speech guarantees, the US Constitution or any law, before you act or draw conclusions about legal matters.
Under First Amendment free speech, free speech does not include true threats. However, treats made in humor or funny stories, like exaggerated statements or claims not meant to be taken literally, tends to be protected speech in certain circumstances. For example, Saturday Night Live, (“SNL”), a comedy show shown on TV on Saturday night, has made sketches mocking the blind and making racist jokes about people who go to Starbucks, (things like this). SNL made a fake video defaming Thailand. These were shocking and offensive to a lot of folks. SNL poked fun at real people. Comedians verbalized threats and violence.
Humor performed by professional comedians or published by professional cartoonists is considered protected speech. Jokes, cartoons, sketches and speech, shared by professional comedians and artists is part of what they do for good reasons. Professional comedians, cartoonists, artists and the like, create artistic and scientific works that benefit the public. Often, artistic work involves sarcastic comedy, political satire, parody and shocking artistic work that may involve certain forms of pornography. Legality of the free speech and the intent of that speech (which is one of many legal elements that must be shown) is quite often determined by the virtue of one’s profession.
The intent of an artist, by virtue of the artistic profession, is to add artistic value to most people and the general public, whether or not this is shocking to a few individuals. The intent of a comedian, by virtue of the comedic profession, is to entertain and invoke thought, discussion and to inject humor or satire into a skit or cartoon, not to cause specific harm to others. Many times, these forms of free speech are political in nature. Political figures and political issues are permissible targets of free speech. Not everyone or everything fits into this category. Every case is different.
Even on occasion, even comedians and artists get into legal trouble. For example, if an artist took an artistic work too far and people filed legal cases against them, this is perfectly legal if the claim is not frivolous. The Court will determine a frivolous case and have it dismissed, when necessary. Every case must be examined by the facts and the nature of the speech published, be it in writing, on any form of medium or orally (by word of mouth). Every case must look at the platform of delivery, the person publishing the speech and, in some cases, who the speech was intended for or the intended message and audience.
As you may have guessed, there is a lot look at when it comes to Free Speech rights and Constitutional laws regarding freedom of speech. Examples are only a snapshot. I can only give you a general snapshot of this topic. But remember, US First Amendment free speech is never a get-out-of-jail-free ticket that gives a person unconditional immunity from arrest, jail or a civil lawsuit. The story of Ebony Dickens is a perfect example. Posting threats to the cops on Facebook or anywhere, is one reason why quite often posting things on Facebook can land a person in court or worse, jail.
by Ginger B. Kelly, Esq., May 19, 2015
ABOUT ME: Attorney Kelly is an attorney in good standing, licensed to practice in both the Federal District and State Courts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Her law practice is focused on consumer finance and bankruptcy. However, Attorney Kelly is experienced in both criminal and civil trial work. On a personal note, Attorney Kelly enjoys writing and other things, like conservation and agriculture. To find out more visit, www.attorneykelly.squarespace.com or http://www.attorneykelly.wordpress.com, or call us at (508) 784-1444.
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