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College rampage threat 5 days after the Colorado shooting leads to arrest

Five days after the Colorado shooting, a Kent State sophomore allegedly 'tweeted' profanities and threats at university president, threatening to 'shoot up' the school. 

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“First Amendment rules don’t change depending on the medium,” Mr. Hansen says. “The question is ‘what is the speech’, not ‘what is the medium for which the speech is conveyed.’”

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For prosecutors to show that Koberna’s Twitter post was not protected by the First Amendment, they need to prove that the threat met the decades-old "clear and imminent" threshold – that it was credible and not hyperbole, and also that the university perceived the campus was in danger.

The burden of proof on both ends of the threat is intended to not just to prevent a potential violent act from happening, but also to stop fear from spreading, says Michael Dorf, a law professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. That’s even if the Twitter post was intended as a joke or was simply impassioned rhetoric gone awry.

“The law has long said that context matters,” Mr. Dorf says. Because social media makes even the most innocuous comment public, colorful language that otherwise might not be taken seriously can be elevated to the status of a threat.

The “unsettled question” regarding how to legislate First Amendment rights and social media is in the generational divide among its users.  Younger users, for example, tend to be less guarded about what they post online because they consider it “just an extension of the physical world,” Dorf says. Older users tend to be more aware of the implications of their online behavior and therefore are less prone to post comments that may be perceived as a threat.

Incidents like the one at Kent State typically result in attempts to clamp down on technology due to protect unwarranted threats, Hansen says. “Whenever there is a new medium of communication, there are people who push to change the rules,” he says.

What is more likely to weigh into Koberna’s fate is the July 20 mass killing in Aurora, Colo. that is raising awareness about violence prevention and at-risk youth. The rampage killed 12 people and wounded 58 others.

“Judges live in the same society as the rest of us, so when there is a mass killing perpetrated by a relatively young person, that brings home to judges that these things need to be taken very seriously,” Dorf says. “For every mass killing, you’ll find dozens of incidents of kids being suspended or expelled from school for comments or behavior that were probably fairly innocuous.”

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