[author: Michele Bowman]
While record numbers of tweets were being sent during the Democratic National Convention in early September, several Twitter users were attracting the attention of the Secret Service.
Donte Jamar Sims was arrested September 5 in Charlotte for tweeting death threats against President Barack Obama. Sims allegedly posted five messages on September 3 that caught the attention of the top echelons of the Twitter police, including: “Ima hit president Obama with that Lee Harvey Oswald swag,” and “Well IMA Assassinate president Obama this evening.”
Sims told the investigators that he hated the president and was high on marijuana when he posted the tweets, according to the AP. At first he was smug about his actions but when it became apparent he was going to jail, he wrote an apology.
Another Twitter user followed suit a few days later near Cincinnati. A 16-year-old from Clarksville, Ohio tweeted on Sept 6, the night Obama gave his nomination acceptance speech, “Someone needs to assassinate Obama … like ASAP.” This again attracted the attention of Secret Service agents, who are in contact with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio about the incident, according a report by the “Detroit Free Press.”
No First Amendment Protection for ‘True Threats’
Federal law prohibits making threats against the president, vice president and their successors and provides for a five-year jail sentence and/or a fine. Threats against the president are routinely investigated by the Secret Service, and social media has simply given people new ways to broadcast such ill-advised rants.
However, the fact that Sims chose a social media channel as his medium doesn’t protect him: He can be prosecuted with no First Amendment protection for a “’true threat’ that a reasonable person would interpret as a serious expression of intent to harm or assault,” says David A. Anderson, Fred & Emily Marshall Wulff Centennial Chair in Law at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin.
‘Political’ Commentary Argument Could Protect Sims
Professor David A. Anderson
Anderson explains that in the leading U.S. Supreme Court case on the issue, which arose during the Vietnam War, “a young man at an anti-war rally said, ‘If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ.’ The Supreme Court reversed his conviction on the ground that in context the comment was a political statement, not a true threat.”
“A true threat can be communicated by any means, including the media,” notes Anderson. “I would say the fact that this one was made via Twitter is relevant only in deciding whether it should be interpreted as a true threat or as political comment.” Which is certainly possible, given that Sims made the comment on the eve of the DNC, in the city where it was held.
Then there’s the possible irony card: “The speaker may argue, ‘If I had really meant it, I wouldn’t have tweeted it’,” Anderson observes. “But I don’t think that necessarily gets him off.”
The case could come down to whether Sims made regular political commentary on his Twitter page, but it’s now been disabled, so we can’t tell. Faced with subpoenas in a criminal case that raised other constitutional issues, Twitter recently changed its terms of service so that users, not Twitter, own and are responsible for their own tweets. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on the case.
Read more about the limits of First Amendment-protected speech on Lawyers.com.
Photo credit: Photo: Mecklenburg County Sheriff.