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Can the FBI Investigate You for Online Threats? What to Know

By Spodek Law Group | October 18, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 19, 2023)

Last Updated on: 19th October 2023, 01:55 pm


Can the FBI Investigate You for Online Threats? What to Know

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.

What Counts as an Online Threat?

For speech to be considered an illegal threat, it has to meet a few criteria:

  • The threat has to be intentional – you meant to threaten someone.
  • The threat has to target a specific person, group, or organization.
  • There must be some indication you intend to carry out the threat – it can’t just be idle talk.
  • A reasonable person would interpret your statement as a genuine threat.

Here are some examples of online posts that could be considered threats:

  • “I’m going to blow up my school tomorrow.”
  • “I’m coming to [person’s name] house with my gun tonight.”
  • “Somebody needs to shoot up [organization name] headquarters.”

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.

How the First Amendment Comes Into Play

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.

Federal Laws Against Online Threats

If the FBI investigates an online threat, here are some of the federal charges that could potentially apply:

  • Interstate Communications Act – Makes it a felony to transmit threats across state lines, including online posts.
  • Interstate Stalking Act – Makes it illegal to use any facility of interstate commerce, like the internet, to make threats that place a person in reasonable fear of harm.
  • Terrorist Hoax Improvements Act – Criminalizes false threats that are likely to cause an emergency response.

In addition to federal charges, state laws against criminal threats, stalking, harassment, or inciting violence may apply.

What Happens If the FBI Investigates You

If the FBI opens an investigation into an online threat they think is serious, here’s what you can expect:

  • They will try to identify the author of the threat by getting user data from the online platform used.
  • They may monitor your online activity as part of the investigation.
  • You may be visited by FBI agents who will ask you questions.
  • Your home, devices, accounts, etc. could be searched if they get a warrant.
  • You may be arrested and charged if they think they have enough evidence.

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.

How to Avoid an FBI Investigation

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:

  • Never post direct threats of violence against any person, group, or organization.
  • Don’t make vague threatening statements that could alarm people.
  • Understand that even if you’re joking, threats can be taken seriously.
  • Be careful reposting or endorsing threatening content made by others.
  • Avoid speech that could incite criminal conduct, even if not overtly threatening.

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.


Interstate Communications Act

Interstate Stalking Act

Terrorist Hoax Improvements Act


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