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When Social Media Crosses The Line

May 9, 2014, 9:55 PM by Perry Groten

When Social Media Crosses The Line

We've seen this week how criminal suspects posted troubling content on social media ranging from threats of violence against a school to gun-wielding Facebook photos. Users often dismiss such posts as merely joking around, but it's no laughing matter to law enforcement.

Chilling Facebook images of Sioux Falls standoff suspect Derek Arapahoe defiantly posing with weapons put the shock factor of social media on full display.

"That's the whole problem with a lot of this. You don't know where the lines are because it's hard to define them," Sioux Falls media attorney Jon Arneson said.

The First Amendment right of free speech applies to social media.  But like all other forms of communication, what you post online comes with Constitutional limits. Yankton police charged Travis Potts with making terroristic threats for allegedly tweeting he was going to "shoot up" a local school.  

"The social media people need to understand that you're creating a record that may not be helpful to you if you are running afoul of your free speech protections," Arneson said.

Let's say you're watching your kid's baseball game and you get caught up in the moment and shout out, "kill the ump."  Those around you might dismiss your comments as coming from an overwrought fan.  But write down those words, "kill the ump" on your Facebook page, that's a whole different matter.

"It may be taken more seriously, not just because it was written, but there it is. I can't take it back. I can't pretend I said some other word than 'kill' that rhymes with kill. I mean, there it is," Arneson said.

Arneson says the anonymity of social media entices too many users to post highly-charged comments that turn protected speech into threatening language.

Arneson says when interpreting intent behind a potentially-threatening social media post, law enforcement is most likely going to come down on the side of public safety and file charges.

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