Online “Guestbook” threats of violence not protected speech
In 2005, D. C. was a student at a private high school in Los Angeles. The 15 year old junior was actively pursuing a career as a singer and an actor. He maintained a website to promote his entertainment ambitions. The site allowed any member of the public to post comments in a “guestbook”.
Six students posted threats on D. C.’s site. Motivated by the belief that D. C. was gay, they sought to drive him out of the Harvard-Westlake School and the community where he lived. Messages posted included “Faggot, I’m going to kill you.” – “You are now officially wanted dead or alive.” – “If I ever see you I’m….going to pound your head with an ice pick.” There were a total of 34 offensive postings over a two-day period. Six of the messages were considered serious threats of bodily harm.
Although reported to the school, none of the students who admitted posting the threats were suspended or expelled. D. C. and his parents filed a lawsuit against the six students and their parents as well as the school. D. C. claims a violation of the state’s hate crimes law, defamation for being called a homosexual, and for intentional inflication of emotional distress. Allegedly, as a consequence of the threatening posts, D. C. , upon the advice of the police, changed schools and the family moved to another town.
The students asked the trial court to dismiss the lawsuit claiming the messages were protected under Internet freedom of speech, and that they were made in a public forum (D. C.’s website) on an issue of public interest.
The court denied the motion to dismiss because the “public interest” law did not apply to the facts of this case. The court also denied the students’ “protected speech” argument stating that intent to actually carry out a threat is not necessary – that the prohibition against true threats protects individuals from the fear of violence, the possibility that the threatened violence will occur, and from the disruption that fear engenders. In March, 2010, the trial court’s decision was affirmed by an appellate court.
The court said that although “The First Amendment affords protection to symbolic or expressive conduct as well as to actual speech . . .threats made with specific intent to injure and focused on a particular individual easily fall into that category of speech deserving no first amendment protection.” The case may proceed to trial unless further appeals are taken.
What do you think the outcome will be at trial? Should there be limits on what you can say in a public guestbook? After all the owner of the site can choose to use an application that allows editing before the posts go public. Should that make a difference? Or is an actual or true threat of violence toward someone always wrong and therefore not protected speech?
Read more about the possible consequences for online comments on someone else’s website.