You may have caught this story on the local news recently. Justin Carter, an 18 year old male from New Braunfels, Texas, was engaging in a heated discussion on Facebook. After a friend called him crazy, he unwisely posted that he was going to “shoot up a kindergarten, watch the blood rain down and eat the beating heart out of one of them.” Carter’s poor choice of words went well beyond demonstrating insensitivity to recent tragedies involving mass shootings. A Canadian woman saw Carter’s comments and alerted the local authorities. Although Carter claims that he immediately followed his comments with “LOL, JK” (laugh out loud, just kidding), he was nonetheless charged by the Comal County Criminal District Attorney with making terroristic threats and imprisoned with a $500,000 bail.
Can you be held accountable for Facebook?
It may come as a surprise to some that the words of a socially awkward young adult could lead to criminal charges and a half-million dollar bond. After all, the First Amendment to the Constitution specifically protects the right of every citizen to speak freely. What everyone needs to realize though, if they don’t know it already, is that the Supreme Court has ruled that the First Amendment does not protect certain forms of speech. In this case, threats of violence that are aimed at particular people are not protected by the First Amendment. See Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003). As a result, many states have laws that criminalize statements that can be considered terroristic threats.
Section 22.07 of the Texas Penal Code covers terroristic threats.The law contains several provisions involving threats to government officials and disrupting public places. The portions most relevant to Carter’s case state that it is a terroristic threat if a person threatens to place a person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury (which could be a Class B or Class A misdemeanor) or places the public or a substantial group of the public in fear of serious bodily injury (which could be a third degree felony).TPC § 22.07 (a)(2),(5).
It will be interesting to see how Carter’s case plays out. It has already had two noteworthy twists. First, an anonymous supporter posted the $500,000 bond on Carter’s behalf, releasing him after he spent several months in jail. Then, last month, Carter’s attorney asked the Court to subpoena the Canadian woman who first reported the comments to police, calling her a “vital witness.” Carter’s attorneys are seeking to reconstruct the conversation in order to put their client’s statement in a context where they can be seen as unserious hyperbole. Whatever the outcome, it should serve as a lesson during a time when so many people communicate openly with social media sites like Facebook and Twitter that simply saying “LOL, JK” will not keep you from being held responsible for your words.
If you have been accused of a crime and wondering how the First Amendment applies to your case, consult with a serious criminal defense lawyer in San Antonio. With a free consultation, you can't go wrong speaking with Attorney Lara today.