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Justin Carter case: How one man's Facebook 'banter' is another's 'threat'

Teenager Justin Carter has been in custody in Texas for 4-1/2 months after posting a Facebook item that seemed to threaten a school shooting. Is this a case of due diligence by law officers, or free speech violated?

By Staff writer / July 3, 2013

Facebook's logo appears on an iPad in Philadelphia in 2012. Texas teenager Justin Carter has been in custody for more than 4 months after posting what authorities say was a 'terroristic threat' on Facebook. Mr. Carter says that he was writing a sarcastic remark.

Matt Rourke/AP/File

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Did Justin Carter make a threat, or a sarcastic joke? That’s the question in the case of the New Braunfels, Texas, teenager arrested for a comment posted on Facebook that’s generating national attention.

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Mr. Carter was arrested several months ago on a third-degree felony charge of making a “terroristic threat.” According to court documents, police allege that he posted, “I’m [expletive] in the head alright. I’ma shoot up a kindergarten/ And watch the blood of the innocent rain down/ And eat the beating heart of one of them.”

According to Carter’s family and lawyer, the comment was a sarcastic response to a comment by another Facebook poster. He was 18 at the time, and “this was banter by kids on the Internet…. He’s a gamer…. He never intended to threaten anyone, he wasn’t serious,” says Donald Flanary, a defense attorney who recently took up the case on a pro bono basis.

A tip routed to a regional intelligence center led to Carter’s arrest, Mr. Flanary says. “I can see how law enforcement can be sensitive to those kinds of comments, and I’m glad that there’s a system to catch it,” he adds. But for Carter to be jailed for months based on Facebook comments taken out of context, with bail set at $500,000 – about five times higher than many murder cases – is an injustice, he says.

This isn’t the first time a teen Facebook post has led to charges of making threats. In Massachusetts this spring, an 18-year-old was arrested for a comment referring to bombing and murder, but a grand jury determined it was in the context of rap lyrics he was writing rather than a genuine threat.

There’s no widespread trend of such cases, “but even a handful of cases where Americans lose their liberty for intemperate postings should get our attention,” says Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum in Washington and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “There are safeguards that should lead to a critical analysis of provocative speech,” he says.

In Carter’s case, Mr. Paulson says, it seems like “the entire [legal] system has overreacted to this post.”

It’s also one example of the myriad ways people are stumbling into trouble for behavior that has a wider audience on the Internet but would never get people into trouble back in the day when trash-talking simply took place in the living room as people played a violent video game, or when drunkenness was witnessed only by a few friends at a party.

Societally, people may want to steer fellow citizens away from using violent imagery in their online comments, but when it comes to police involvement, “it’s critical that we ensure their constitutional rights are protected, and free speech is at the core of that,” Paulson says.

A hearing to reconsider Carter’s bail is set for July 16.

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