I discussed Florida’s Written Threats law, which was recently amended to include electronic communication, on this blog yesterday. I’ve considered it further, and write to express my concern that the law could be applied in greatly disproportionate circumstances. The law proscribes not only threats of death, but also threats of bodily harm. Facially, that sounds appropriate until you consider the broad circumstances that the law could be used to punish people, and the harsh sanction that could result from relatively innocuous behavior.
The statute includes any threat of bodily harm. In Florida, that would likely include misdemeanor-level offenses. The definition of Battery is to intentionally strike or do bodily harm. That’s a misdemeanor. So, if you punch someone in the face, you get a misdemeanor. If you say on Facebook that you’re going to punch someone in the face, you get a second degree felony. That’s a difference of 15 years in prison for the felony, to a maximum 1 year in county jail for actually doing something.
Many people may not be sympathetic toward those who make threats, even minor ones, in any form. But how would you feel if your kid got in an argument and sent some texts while angry? The kid may not even intend to do anything, but he could be facing 15 years in prison. Where prosecutions under this statute could really produce some unfortunate results are for kids who are being bullied, and react harshly with a Facebook status and the victim ends up being charged with reacting to his or her bully.
The facts and threats made by Mr. O’Leary in the underlying case are extreme, and I absolutely do not condone them. While the 10 year prison sentence he received seems awfully harsh for a Facebook post, regardless of how hateful and scary it may be, I’m more concerned about the statute being applied in far less extreme circumstances. Something smells off when a law for making a threat is several degrees more serious than actually carrying through with the threat. I still have serious First Amendment concerns about this law as well. While it may be well-intentioned, some legislative tweaking could better tailor it to reflect the correct degree of potential harm.