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Facebook comments could get Texas teen put away for 10 years

justin-carter-facebook_9527451_40In the Washington Post, Radley Balko reports on the unsettling story of Justin Carter, an 18-year old in Texas, who a year ago was arrested, put in jail and charged with a felony based on comments he posted on Facebook.

In February 2013, about two months after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, Clark posted some comments that appear to be related to a game called League of Legends.  In response to someone calling him "crazy", Clark wrote:  "I'm fucked in the head alright, I think I'ma SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN [sic]." That was followed with "AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT RAIN DOWN."

According to The Houston Press, which reported the original story:

That's when someone in Canada — an individual as yet unidentified in court records — notified local authorities. Because Carter's profile listed him as living in Austin [Texas], the Canadians sent the tip to the Austin Police Department. Along with a cell-phone screenshot of part of the thread and a link to Carter's Facebook page, the tipster provided this narrative: "This man, Justin Carter, made a number of threats on Facebook to shoot up a class of kindergartners...He also made numerous comments telling people to go shoot themselves in the face and drink bleach. The threats to shoot the children were made approximately an hour ago [sic]."

As Balko says, Clark's comments were "vivid and harsh. They're also pretty clearly just a kid talking trash." Clark's lawyer, Dan Flanary, says "the whole thing is totally and completely bonkers." There appears to be no evidence other than a screenshot of snippets of comments back and forth between Clark and others. The entire discussion thread isn't part of the evidence - and of course, context is vitally important in understanding the meaning. Beyond that, there's no evidence that Clark was actually planning an attack:

"They found no guns in his house," Flanary says from his San Antonio office. "They found no bomb-making materials." He follows this up with a dash of sarcasm that's not a far stretch from the rhetorical flourishes that put his client in peril: "They didn't find The Anarchist Cookbook...They didn't find, you know, a bunch of newspaper clippings on the wall — conspiracy theories, with yarn from one place to another. They didn't find pentagrams and candles. He wasn't listening to Judas Priest."

People write dumb things on Facebook and other social media sites all the time. Based on what has been reported, at worst, you could say that Clark's comments might have been worthy of investigation, but that's it. Having to face up to 10 years in prison is just absurd.

More generally, police actions like this have a chilling effect on free speech. People should not have to worry that a Facebook post could land them in jail.

For the entire Houston Press article, go here.



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