The common example of where an American citizen’s right to free speech ends is usually the right to yell fire in a crowded theater. And that’s mostly true, though there are exceptions (if there really is a fire, you’re in the clear). But given that younger folks—who are perhaps most in need of a lesson about the limitations to things that they view as harmless speech—watch all of their movies on laptops and smartphones, rather than in movie theaters, maybe it’s time to update our go-to example of non-protected speech: Let’s, perhaps, try “posting on an Internet forum that you think is anonymous about your plans to shoot up your school” instead.
That’s a lesson that Christopher Louis Bolanos-Garza, a Texas A&M student from Humble, learned this week after the he was arrested on suspicion of posting a threat on the anonymous social media network Yik Yak. As the Houston Chronicle reports:
A Texas A&M student from Humble is being held without bond after campus police accused him of spreading threats of violence over the Internet.
On Tuesday, Texas A&M police said they began receiving several calls about an anonymous post on a social media site called Yik Yak. The post said, “This is not a joke! Don’t go to campus between 7 and 7:30. This will be my only warning!”
Police obtained a subpoena for information from Yik Yak about the threatening message. The company provided investigators with a cell phone connected to the account, officials said.
It’s unclear what the exact intention behind the message was—if police have any reason to believe that the threat might have been carried out, or if they believe it was just posted to scare A&M students—but either is illegal. At the moment, the twenty-one-year-old has been charged with making terroristic threats, a third-degree felony.
But his threat isn’t the only one to crop up around a Texas campus in the wake of the fatal shooting spree that took place in Oregon earlier this month. A few days after the shooting that left ten dead at Umpqua Community College, a threat almost identical to the one that appeared on 4chan before that incident was posted to the site, this time specifying Austin.
Police were aware of that threat, but declared that they didn’t consider it credible; no shots were fired at the campus. But a threat, even one that appears unlikely to manifest, can be chilling. At the very least, the ability to disrupt people’s work and education simply by putting words on the Internet seems as though it might feed the same sense of powerlessness that people who carry out shootings like the one in Oregon complain about in their online identities. With that in mind, it’s worth recognizing that those threats are illegal, too.