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Britain Installs New Guidelines For Prosecuting Threatening Comments Made Online, Should The U.S. Follow Suit?

Keir Starmer, chief prosecutor for England and Wales, spoke this week about stricter guidelines for harassing and threatening comments online. Is it time for the United States to do the same? 

The LA Times has the story which explains how Starmer’s new guidelines will reinforce a law from 2003 to prosecute those making “indecent, obscene or menacing” comments online.

“The law predates the explosion of such new media as Twitter and Facebook, and some police officials say that having to investigate the increasing number of complaints about offensive online messages is distracting them from more serious work,” writes the Times. “Keir Starmer, the chief prosecutor for England and Wales, said Wednesday that new guidelines from his office would raise the bar for criminal charges under the 2003 law by limiting most prosecutions to cases involving threatening and intimidating remarks targeted at specific individuals. That would help protect freedom of expression while still allowing authorities to crack down where warranted, he said.”

This strikes a nerve because of recently publicized incidents involving women in the comic industry, as well as Amazing Spider-Man writer Dan Slott, receiving death threats online. We regularly report on online harassment and sexism but too often annoying/vulgar comments turn into serious threats of violence and yes, death.

Starmer told BBC radio, “We need a sensible way of dividing the messages into those which are more likely to be prosecuted – the threats and the harassment and the breach of court orders – and those that aren’t – the deeply unpopular, the shocking, the grossly offensive.”

Being on the receiving end of direct threats, I may be biased but I’d like to think most people using the internet agree that direct threats, whether made seriously or not, are unacceptable behavior. In the U.S. the legalities of prosecuting such threats vary by state. Comic Book Resources recently spoke with a few law enforcement officials about an individual’s rights in cases like these:

“Internet threats are not easy to prosecute,” Paul Guthrie, a Deputy District Attorney with the Los Angeles Country DA’s office, told CBR News. Guthrie explained that his state qualifies internet death threats as a “strike felony,” as in “three strikes and you’re out,” where penalties for the crime impact future felonies as well. “In California, it’s penal code section 422, and it is a strike offense. If you get convicted of this, you’ve got one strike on your record. It’s also, interestingly, what we call a ‘wobbler,’ which means it can be a felony or it can be a misdemeanor. Usually, strikes are reserved for the more serious felonies, but it’s possible for this to be a misdemeanor.”

And also:

In other states, the laws work differently, sometimes actually making prosecution easier. Timothy Matas, a Public Defender in Platte County, Nebraska, said that in his state, cyber threats are classified as a “Terroristic Threats,” placing the impetus more on intent than in California. “In Nebraska, a person commits the crime of terroristic threats if he or she ‘threatens to commit any crime of violence: (a) with the intent to terrorize another; (b) With the intent of causing the evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transportation; or (c) In reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or evacuation.

They also point out that with the borderless aspect of the internet, individuals may be able to seek legal action in whichever state they feel has the best chance of conviction. So yes, while prosecutions may be harder to get in the U.S., those being attacked should not let serious incidents go unreported.

Starmer said, “It would be stifling free speech if people thought that every time they communicated something which might be deeply offensive or deeply unpopular … then the police were likely to get involved. We need to protect the individual against threats and harassment … but free speech has its place.”

What are your thoughts? Oddly telling is a poll at the top of the Times’ piece asking whether or not there should be criminal charges for social media comments that are harassing or threatening. As of publishing, 89% answered no. Perhaps it should have been worded differently, leaving off harassing and replacing it with violence?

(via LiveScience, image via Getty)

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  • Jim Cook

    Freedom of speech does not include the freedom to threaten or bully. Your rights end where mine begin.

  • Kate Coleman

    Free speech is free speech. The only time prosecution is appropriate is in the event of a credible threat to someone’s life.

  • Kate Coleman

    Inalienable rights never “end.” You are not entitled to censor people simply because they offend you.

  • Jim Cook

    Threatening violence directly toward someone is not being “offensive” it threatening violence. Try to keep up.

  • Steamgirl

    I’m for it. They seem like they’re really invested in making sure that people don’t get wrongfully prosecuted for having unpopular opinions or whatever. But if there’s a way to prosecute people who threaten rape or death (especially if they have the means to carry it out, like having access to your home address or other personal info) I think people should have the right to press charges.

  • Anonymous

    Define “credible.”

  • Kate Coleman

    If you had actually read my first comment, you would know that I agree with you there. Try not to be condescending. It’s rude.

  • Kate Coleman

    Therein lies the heart of the issue, my friend. :)

  • Jim Cook

    There are limits to speech. You don’t have the right to shout fire in a theater, you don’t have the right to libel or slander, and you don’t have the right to walk up to someone and threaten to beat them up or kill them. This also applies to online speech.

  • Kate Coleman

    So what exactly are we arguing about? My initial response to you was pretty straightforward and had nothing to do with any of the things you just brought up. Lets just ceasefire. You’re clearly taking this a little too seriously and I’m not interested in bickering..

  • Anonymous

    “Being on the receiving end of direct threats”

    Really? YOU, of all people? The hell is wrong with the world…

  • Adrienne Reynolds

    Life. liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable, ( self evident, but only in the non-Binding Declaration of Independence) Speech is not. That’s why it had to be added to a Bill of Rights in a working legal document.

    Freedom of speech does not extend to assault – which by the way legally is this “At Common Law, an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact” in other words the threat of violence. It is not protected speech. Also before anyone decides to defend this position with thinking that assault means anything besides the speech – the part where you commit the violence is different – it’s called “battery” legally defined as “n law, an intentional unpermitted act causing harmful or offensive contact with the “person” of another.Battery is concerned with the right to have one’s body left alone by others.”

    Please do not mistake the enlightment philosophy of “inalienable rights” as fully expansive past the point of another human being’s rights. Even libertarianism and Hayek’s right to sovereignty agree that one person’s rights end where they infringe on the sovereignty of another person, and since assault is the threat of battery specifically to inhibit the target of assault from accessing the targets’s rights, it is not even close to making the mark for free speech in public – you may mutter and write manifestos in your home but when out in any public square there are the communal considerations of liberty other than your own. The constitution establishes justice and “secures domestic tranquility”, not inalienable rights.

    No, you do not have the right to threaten someone and call it free speech. Nor does having a right eliminate your responsibilty and allow you to avoid consequences of enacting your right. Ever.

  • Anonymous

    Yes…of course we need laws to protect those poor folks who perceive text on a screen from other anonymous internet users as “threatening”.

  • Bel

    There is enough skepticism about internet harassment and the seriousness thereof that I trust these laws won’t be misapplied, so I’m all for it.

  • Joanna

    You have every right to be a douchebag, just don’t expect people to like you for it.