Have the Trolls inherited the Internet?12/17/2014
What makes America so great? Without hesitation, you should have answered, “the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” The Declaration states that each and every American is afforded the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution institutes the right to bear arms, protection from illegal search and seizure, the right to a trial by jury, and among many other rights, the right to freedom of speech. With few exceptions, the First Amendment allows Americans to be as truthful and tactless as they wish, free from governmental or legal entanglement… that is, however, until you say something threatening on the Internet.
Visit the comment section of nearly any article online and you will likely discover some of the most vile, hateful speech imaginable. Almost any site where a user can be anonymous — such as Twitter or YouTube — is littered with filth, threats and slander. Sites such as Facebook and Google Plus, however, build a network of friends and family, and users generally keep the ugliness to themselves. Still, there are exceptions where the most crass among us can’t keep to him or herself and make horrifying statements on Facebook.
Such is the case of Anthony Elonis, who was arrested and incarcerated in 2011 for making murderous threats against his estranged wife, a kindergarten class and an FBI agent. Elonis pleaded in court that his status updates on Facebook — which included the phrases “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess,” and “slit her throat, leave her bleeding from her jugular in the arms of her partner” — weren’t threats but quotes from rap lyrics. Ultimately he was convicted after the judge told the jury to consider if “a reasonable person would foresee that the statements would be interpreted as a serious expression of an intent to inflict bodily injury.”
Three years after his conviction, Elonis’ case is once again being adjudicated as the Supreme Court is weighing whether those heinous Facebook posts were protected under the First Amendment. However the court rules, it will potentially set a legal precedent if threatening online posts can be judged by the same criteria as threats in the physical world.
Legal rights aside, the horrific online behavior of online trolls needs to be addressed. For those uninitiated, a troll is an online commenter who posts inconsiderate and offensive material in comment sections on websites in order to create discord and attack others. Interestingly, more is being done today to exact justice on Internet trolls than ever before. While the First Amendment may protect many trolls from legal action, it is perfectly legal to publicize online indecency.
A new Tumblr blog gaining notice is “Racists Getting Fired,” where the administrator collects racist online posts, connects anonymous offenders to their real-world identities and then informs their employers of the abhorrent behavior. According to the blog, the operation has been quite successful in fulfilling its mission.
Before that was the widespread #GamerGate scandal, where female video game reviewers banded together to call for an end to the disgusting manner in which they have been treated by the game-playing community. According to the reviewers, they are routinely accosted with online threats of rape, physical harm and murder.
Sadly, the Supreme Court isn’t weighing all of the ugliness online, just Elonis’ posts. While I am in no way a lawyer or a legal expert, it’s hard to see the Court upholding Elonis’ conviction considering it has protected pornography, violent films, campaign finance, rap and rock music and protesting soldiers’ funerals under the guise of free speech. As it stands, it seems vulgarity and threats on the Internet are simply our right as Americans. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.