The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States protects freedom of speech and expression. While this is a federal law, the states are bound to it by their “selective incorporation” into the United States. Most state constitutions also have a protection that includes freedom of speech and expression. But lately, the number and frequency of incidents of mass violence and public hate crimes in our country are rising dramatically. Our governing bodies are trying to consider how best to protect the safety of the public, while protecting ingrained and long-standing civil rights.
One of the ways this have been done is a revision of the statutes that define what is protected free speech and expression, and what speech rises to the level of a public danger. In Minnesota, the legislature has revised several standards that impact speech. The revision of the terroristic threats laws has added some specific language that is designed to protect schools and the public from both threats of and actual mass violence.
Frequent use of the words terrorism and terrorist in the media suggest a foreign influence, danger to America from abroad, from specific subcultures or religions, an offshoot of wars and armed conflict. Unfortunately, most of the terrorism America suffers from is homegrown, from citizens who grew up in America, went to American schools, work in American workplaces.
What is a terroristic threat?
A threat doesn’t mean there is an actual plan, materials, or weapons. The threat, or words themselves, are considered the crime, as the words can cause a risk to public safety. Most define this as a threat to commit violence with the intention of arousing fear in a population. Included in the meaning is the intention of disrupting public activity, evacuating buildings, or calling out emergency response providers.
If the threat of violence is used as a means to bring about political or industrial reform, or to intimidate, bring about an immediate breach of the peace, or present a clear and present danger to public safety, the threat can rise to the level of terroristic threat. Notice it is the threat itself that is the crime.
The fear and disruption of usual activity caused by the threat of violence can lead to livelihoods being threatened. People don’t send their children to school and they stay home from work. Businesses close and public engagement is curtailed. In urgent situations, where there is a risk of immediate danger to life, people can be hurt. Bystanders can flee from the danger, causing accident and disruption, and first responders, attempting to save lives and property, can be injured.
The type of injuries that occur when people respond to a threat are considered by law enforcement as the direct consequence and responsibility of the person making the threat.
What kind of expression comes under terroristic threat?
When we talk about free speech, it actually means expression- both written and verbal language, dress, art, music and song, and acts. Both flag burning and cross burning have been considered protected free speech in this country. This expression, though, when it incites others to riot, contains hate language, is obscene, contains fighting words–words that cause an immediate breach of the peace–or in other ways suggests people are in danger, can be considered terroristic threats.
Songs that suggest a school shooting or bombing is about to take place can be considered terroristic threats. Playing an online game, and posting about wanting to shoot up a school or a police station, can be considered a threat. Making a piece of art that will be viewed as inciting others to violence can be viewed as a terroristic threat.
In Minnesota, under the new revisions, a person can’t wave about a weapon or incendiary device, even a fake; they can’t cause a place to be evacuated, such as a school, by calling in or saying something online that can be construed as a threat. These sorts of actions, even though they may be seen as a joke or a piece of performance art, can cause people to be hurt. The threat itself can put people in danger.
Even two generations ago, it was a commonly understood joke that a kid could call in a bomb threat to school, get the place evacuated to get out of a test. That behavior is no longer an acceptable part of American life, and even though considered at the time by kids as a joke, was never well tolerated by authorities. Times have changed, and parents and other responsible adults need to teach children the new rules of what is acceptable behavior in public, including online.
Adults are using various programs to monitor online communications for words that imply danger. Both law enforcement and concerned citizens are attempting to prevent the loss of life and disruption of economic activity that comes with acts of mass violence. Even while playing games, role playing, making art, or just blowing off steam, take care that your words and phrases are not going to be misinterpreted by someone else, reading them out of context. If this happens, it is important to ask for an attorney before arguing with law enforcement about what you really meant to say.
What happens if I’m charged with making a terroristic threat?
With the increasing number of incidents of mass shootings in schools and public places, authorities are taking these types of terroristic threats very seriously. Public safety will always be seen as more important than personal rights of expression, and anytime the authorities believe the public is in danger, a person charged with making terroristic threats will be incarcerated.
If questioned by the police or taken into custody, it is important to not argue or use abusive or profane language. Stay calm, keep your hands visible, and do not try to touch an officer. You must give your identity when asked, and if you are filming or making a recording, an officer can ask you to stop if it is interfering with their job. Officers have the right to a frisk or pat down of your exterior clothing, but do not give any statements or consent to further searches until you speak to an attorney.
The long term consequences of having a conviction for terrorism on the record are significant, and include loss of opportunity for education and employment, loss of ability to serve in the armed forces, and many other restrictions. It is critical for your future to consult with an attorney immediately if you have been charged with making terroristic threats under these new statutes.
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