Even the most adamant freedom of speech supporters agree that there is never a total freedom of speech. The extent to which a freedom-loving society will embrace free speech ends where that speech causes harm. The classic case is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. But most people who use that example forget a key word.
The dangerous speech here is falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater. If the theater is actually on fire, shout “Fire!” all your want. Jump up and wave your hands as you scream it. Compose a song about it. Yell it over your shoulder as you race up the aisle. But if there isn’t a fire and you create a panic that causes injury, freedom of speech isn’t going to protect you from prosecution. (Interesting note, the case that birthed the phrase, Schenck v. United States, had nothing to do with fires. It actually upheld a conviction of a man who was protesting the draft during World War I using a rule that no longer applies.)
The same limitation applies for social media, only now it’s even more dangerous to induce false panic because social media posts last much longer than nefarious sound waves. Although I recently blogged about social media accusations, two other recent examples show the dangers false social media panic can create–both for the instigators and the public.
Take, for example, the case of Paul Chambers in the UK (pointed out to me by @Ninabzai). On January 10, 2010, while trying to fly to Belfast to meet another Twitter user, snow shut down much of the country’s airports. In frustration, he sent the following tweet:
Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky-high!!
As a result of the tweet, four officers came to his work, his home was searched for dangerous materials, his personal property (phone and computer) were confiscated, and he claims he lost his job as a result of the investigation. He was charged with violating the Communications Act 2003 which makes it a crime if a person
sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character;
Mr. Chambers was convicted and fined about a thousand pounds. After some media outlets sided with him on the story under the #twitterjoke hashtag, he appealed the ruling based on his tweet not being menacing. That case is currently being reviewed by several UK judges as they attempt to reconcile social media with existing law. Although to me the outcome is a bit uncertain (the tweet is right on the line of being read as a joke or not, hard to tell the context of his tweets but if it was independently read then that context would also be missing), it’s also clear the damage has already been done in this case. While Mr. Chambers may or may not be a successful joke teller, he is certainly an idiot for making a public joke that involves airports and explosives.
Indeed, in Mr. Chambers’ own retelling of the story he compares the tweet to another threat of violence:
Like having a bad day at work and stating that you could murder your boss, I didn’t even think about whether it would be taken seriously.
Apparently the lesson from this incident hasn’t really sunken in if he’s comparing the tweet to a murder threat. You know, good clean murder and bombings–what could be more innocent and carefree?
From Mexico comes the story of a school teacher and a journalist imprisoned for sending terrorist threats over Twitter. The problem began on August 25, 2011, when teacher Gilberto Martinez Vero tweeted the following message about a local elementary school:
i confirm that in the ‘Jorge Arroyo’ Sch. In Carranza Col. an armed group has taken 5 children. Total psychosis in the zone.
Like Mr. Chambers, who sent a tweet about explosives and an airport in a security-aware age, Mr. Vero sent his tweet in the city of Veracruz which has had a tidal wave of drug cartel violence over the last few years. Including violence against school children. A local journalist picked up the tweet and began sending it out with hashtags to ensure a wider distribution. As I think could be expected, the tweets went viral and panic ensued. Horrified parents rushed to the scene to retrieve their children (probably scared out of their minds that their child was one of the five taken). In the panic, several car crashes were reported.
The teacher and journalist were arrested for the tweets. When authorities attempted to charge them with a crime it turned out all they had that read on the situation was a crime covering terrorism threats. The crime carried a penalty of up to 30 years in prison. Realizing that may be too harsh, the government quickly passed legislation to make rumor-mongering a lesser offense. But the backlash had already begun–local citizens were outraged that while real crimes were still going on the government was threatening two Twitter users. And the public insisted they needed social media to find out what was happening with the real violence–they were scared that a case like this could create a chilling effect that would cause even more harm. Acknowledging that the Mexican public needs social media right now to find out about current events and that the existing law was too harsh, the two were released. That’s a particular result for a unique situation, but hopefully everyone involved understands the danger of putting out false information.
Understanding the need for social media coverage in that environment, it’s also bizarre to see the number of blogs and journalists rush to defend the tweets as independent media coverage. This wasn’t media coverage, this was falsely shouting “Hostage!” in an elementary school. One apologetic piece in Mother Jones discusses the state of Mexican journalism due to the extended drug violence and while I have sympathy for that environment I don’t believe that excuses the tweets.
I once heard a JetBlue executive speak about using social media in crisis situations. Her great quote was “It’s only good to be fast if you’re right.” Here is an excellent example of that–here the two Twitter users were fast but were 100% wrong and that created real panic and real damage. I’m not saying they should have been put away for years, but they also shouldn’t have been let completely off the hook. There is a real danger with violence spilling over into schools and that’s a terrifying situation–it also means that if you start a false report you should be held responsible for the harm in being wrong.
In this case, a rare convergence of social need and criminal law gaps let the two off the hook, but the danger of false panic in social media is real and a limit to how we view freedom of speech.