A sophomore at Ohio’s Kent State University pleaded not guilty Monday to charges that he threatened the school’s president, allegedly saying in a posting to the microblog service Twitter that “I’m shooting up your school ASAP.”
William Koberna’s alleged threat on July 25 came just days after a graduate student methodically shot and killed a dozen people at a Colorado movie theater, stunning the nation and rekindling the fiery debate over gun control in the US.
It was unclear what sparked Mr. Koberna's threat but it highlighted the complexities related to the First Amendment and its expression through in the exploding social media universe of Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other sites.
Police arrested Koberna, 19, at his parents’ suburban Cleveland home on Sunday after university contacted police about his profanity-laced Twitter postings directed at university President Lester Lefton and the phrase “I’m shooting up your school ASAP.”
At his arraignment Monday in Portage County Municipal Court in Ravenna, Ohio, Koberna, a computer science major, pleaded not guilty to inducing panic, which is a felony, and aggravated menacing, which is a misdemeanor, according to newsnet5.com. During the hearing, he told Judge Mark Frankhauser he has “no prior criminal record — not even a speeding ticket.”
No weapons were found at his parents’ house. Bail was set at $50,000 and he was ordered to stay off campus and have no contact with Mr. Lefton.
The university says he also faces hearings that could results in a suspension or dismissal.
The incident again highlights the power and pitfalls of social media where users can be quick to post a comment or blast out an email that can ricochet around the Internet in seconds. When it comes to rules determining unprotected speech, social media is no different than any other technology — from a newspaper article to a postal letter, says Chris Hansen, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union in New York City.
“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.’”
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.”