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.
The First District Court of Appeals upheld a conviction this week of a man who posted a threat to a family member on Facebook. O’Leary v. State, Slip Op. No. 1D12-0975 (Fla. 1st DCA, 2013). Timothy O’Leary was charged under Florida Statute Section 836.10, which makes it a felony of the second degree to send a written threat to someone. The court, on an issue of first impression, found that posting such a written threat on Facebook constitutes “sending” that message, and qualifies for prosecution under the statute.
The statute was amended in 2010 to include electronic communications. This is the first time that I have heard of Facebook comments, or comments on other social media,being charged under this section of the law. I have some concerns about the law being applied to a Facebook status, but until contrary law is published, such Facebook comments could potentially land you up to fifteen years in prison.
I have some major concerns about this type of prosecution. First, it appears to run afoul of the First Amendment. Publishing comments on Facebook, just like comments in traditional media, are generally going to be protected speech under the First Amendment. The most commonly recognized exceptions are related to speech that will cause an immediate breach of the peace. Oliver Wendell Holmes famously gave the example of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. While this type of threat could be construed as fighting words, the ethereal nature of internet publishing make an immediate breach of the peace unlikely.
Additionally, the “threat” posted in this case is one of a conditional nature. That is, it was not a simple statement intending harm. Instead, it was “if” A occurs, then he would react with “B”- the harm. The threat made was homophobic and particularly nasty, only read the judicial opinion if you are not bothered by coarse language. Bad facts frequently make bad case law. Neither of the concerns I have expressed were discussed in the First District’s opinion, and I don’t even know if the issues were raised. Such a prosecution would not be a slam dunk, in spite of this case, due to the unaddressed legal concerns. That said, it would not be advisable to make threats on Facebook or in any other written form, from letters to text messages. Mr. O’Leary is currently serving ten years for the charges in this case.