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Last Updated on: 19th October 2023, 01:55 pm
Making threats online can get you in serious legal trouble. The FBI and other law enforcement agencies regularly monitor social media and other online platforms for threats of violence. If they come across a threat they think is credible, they can and will investigate.
But what exactly constitutes an online threat? And at what point does online speech cross the line from being protected by the First Amendment to potentially criminal? Here’s what you need to know about online threats, free speech, and how to avoid getting a visit from the FBI.
For speech to be considered an illegal threat, it has to meet a few criteria:
Here are some examples of online posts that could be considered threats:
These kinds of direct threats against specific targets are most likely to prompt an FBI investigation. Vague, generalized threats are less likely to result in charges.
The First Amendment protects free speech, including unpopular or offensive speech. But it doesn’t protect all speech absolutely. True threats aren’t considered free speech.
However, offensive speech that doesn’t directly threaten someone may be protected. For example, posting “I hate [group name]” would generally be allowed, even though its offensive. The Supreme Court has ruled that speech has to actually be threatening in order to lose First Amendment protection.
Determining if an online post crosses the line into being a true threat can be tricky. The FBI and prosecutors have to consider the context and whether the person really intended to do harm. Dark humor, hyperbole, song lyrics, or political rhetoric may be disgusting but not actual threats.
If the FBI investigates an online threat, here are some of the federal charges that could potentially apply:
In addition to federal charges, state laws against criminal threats, stalking, harassment, or inciting violence may apply.
If the FBI opens an investigation into an online threat they think is serious, here’s what you can expect:
Lying to the FBI or obstructing their investigation will make things much worse for you. But you also don’t have to consent to any searches or answer questions without a lawyer present.
The best way to avoid getting investigated for online threats is simply not to make them in the first place. Keep these tips in mind:
Basically, take care to avoid making statements online that could reasonably be interpreted as serious threats or incitements to violence. And never post while angry or impaired – those are moments when you’re most likely to cross lines you’ll later regret.
The internet makes it easy to say things anonymously you’d never say in person. But that anonymity offers no protection if the FBI tracks you down. When in doubt, just don’t post it.
If you find yourself under FBI investigation over an online threat, get legal counsel immediately. A lawyer can help protect your rights, advocate on your behalf, and guide you through the process. They may be able to convince prosecutors to drop charges.
Don’t panic and do anything rash that could dig you deeper into trouble. With an experienced criminal defense attorney in your corner, you have a much better chance of resolving the situation without major legal consequences.
The FBI takes online threats very seriously, as they should. But not everything that seems threatening is necessarily criminal. With sound legal advice and responsible online speech, you can avoid getting on the FBI’s radar.
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