Which One Is a Real Threat?

By on March 26, 2010

Which of the following expressive activities deserves more than a cursory investigation and perhaps also punishment?

A. Someone sends New York Representative Louise Slaughter a message saying, according to Politico, that “snipers were being deployed to kill” the children of members of Congress who had voted in favor of recent health care legislation.

B. When asked about his feelings of the American public school system, an education critic says, “I say let’s blow it up.”

C. Someone comments about the model in a photograph about a new competitor to the Segway, “Totally unattractive pose … [t]he photographer should be shot.”

D. A university student comments on a Facebook group about the activism of the leader of a student movement against the use of Chief Illiniwek as the school’s mascot, writing, “apparently the leader of this movement is of Sioux descent … the Sioux are the ones that killed off the Illini indians [sic], so she’s just trying to finish what her ancestors started. I say we throw a tomohawk [sic] into her face.”

E. A university student posts on his personal Facebook and Twitter pages:

Dreamt that I assassinated [professor] John Mearsheimer for a secret Israeli organization – there was a hidden closet w/ Nazi paraphanelia [sic]. Haha! :-)

If you answered “all of the above,” you’re wrong (the answer, of course, is A), but it seems that a significant number of people would profess to agree with you and say that it is simply unacceptable to joke about violence. While it might be irresponsible sometimes, it’s usually not illegaland most of the above examples demonstrate the very good reason why. An initial inquiry might be justified in cases where there is a reasonable indication that there might be violent intent, but as soon as the investigator determines that the person is harmless, the investigation must endand the investigator certainly must not demand that the statement be retracted, or else. The First Amendment and common sense require that innocent people be left alonenot that their statements be censored just for the heck of it.

Besides, one person’s outrage is another person’s humor. Comedian Gab Bonesso is proud and even proprietary about her joke about killing someone:

Yeah, well now hack comedy [using others' jokes] has invaded the Alt scene and it’s quite annoying. For example, five years ago I wrote a joke about the website gay.com. Five years ago [in 2009]. At the very end of the joke, I am explaining how I am waiting for a gay man to meet me in a hotel room and when he enters my punchline is: “So then I killed him (pause) because that’s what Jesus would do.” Harsh, edgy, alternative. I’m telling you, I have been doing stand-up in Pittsburgh for 6 years now, NO ONE WAS DOING JOKES WHERE AT THE END OF THE JOKE YOU KILLED SOMEONE. Last night, four different comedians had a punchline that either went, “So I stabbed him” or “So I shot him” or “So I killed him” and sadly, it was gratuitous and didn’t really work in some of the cases.

As we often say at FIRE, the remedy for speech you dislike is more speech, not calling in the cops to investigate and censor the speech. True threats are illegal, and something that might be a threat should be properly evaluated while respecting the speaker’s rights. But obvious jokes (like working for a “secret Israeli organization” in one’s dream) and provocative commentary (like “the photographer should be shot”) deserve the most cursory treatment of all.

Schools: University of Chicago