The internet is a great platform for sharing and communicating. With numerous websites and apps, there are countless ways to connect with family, friends, peers, and strangers—from social media sites, to forums, to comments on news stories. But is our free speech protected online? Can the things you’re posting on the internet get you in trouble? Do you need an internet crime attorney if you committed a crime online?
Is Free Speech Protected Online?
After the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the fear of numerous hurt parents and concerned citizens took it upon themselves to contact legal enforcement regarding perceived life threats posted online by individuals. It was suggested that 27 possible shootings were discovered and stopped by the authorities due to members involved in stopping those threats. However, is it wrong to assume that the words, images, or videos posted online by the purported future shooters actually constituted an involved life threat or intended crime? And what is the difference between online crime and online engagement?
While certain speech may stay safe regardless of whether it’s posted online or said face-to-face, some speech can break the rules, get someone in trouble, and eventually lead to serious legal consequences. Not only that, it can actually be prosecuted in court as written evidence. Here are some types of online speech that are not protected, and that can be prosecuted under Florida jurisdiction.
Online Crimes: Threats
From the legal perspective, threats that a reasonable individual would take seriously are not considered free speech and are not considered protected speech. Florida Statute 836.10 states:
Written threats to kill or do bodily injury; punishment.— Any person who writes or composes and also sends or procures the sending of any letter, inscribed communication, or electronic communication, whether such letter or communication be signed or anonymous, to any person, containing a threat to kill or to do bodily injury to the person to whom such letter or communication is sent, or a threat to kill or do bodily injury to any member of the family of the person to whom such letter or communication is sent commits a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
For example: A potential shooter who intends to spend their time in order to write a specific threat against an organization, such as a school, church, or legal enforcement department (meaning that while there is no certainty that they would’ve followed through on their sign of threats) can still be prosecuted.
Online Crimes: Making a False Report
It is against the law to make a false report, for example: posting a false report online, or writing misleading articles or a story. Individuals who threaten to use a firearm against a subset of people, for example, but don’t have the means to actually do it (the firearms) may be tried under statute 790.163:
It is unlawful for any person to make a false report, with intent to deceive, mislead, or otherwise misinform any person, concerning the placing or planting of any bomb, dynamite, other deadly explosive, or weapon of mass destruction as defined in s. 790.166, or concerning the use of firearms in a violent manner against a person or persons. A person who violates this subsection commits a felony of the second degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s.775.084.
Online Crimes: Intellectual Property
Love the latest Avengers movie and want to make sure everyone can watch it? Unless you’re Disney, it would be a crime to post the movie online unless you have legal rights or received written permission from the owner of this online property.
Things like movies, photos, digital art, articles, and written works are considered intellectual property and are protected under the Copyright Act. Even if you think that you’re innocent, you can get in trouble with piracy or other offenses for sharing work online that isn’t yours and even get arrested by police.
Online Crimes: Revenge Porn
Legally known as sexual cyberharassment, revenge porn is when you post a sexually-explicit content, such as a video or an image of someone else online without their consent. Even though a former lover or a friend may have shared explicit content with you willingly, it’s illegal to post it online without their consent and can get you in trouble with legal authority.
Online Crimes: Private Information
There’s a lot of information about each of us available online. Google’s entire platform is pretty much all about gathering our online behaviors and turning them into marketing dollars. However, posting private information about an individual that is not readily available can get you in trouble and lead to legal consequences. Posting online a piece of private information (for example, social security numbers or credit card numbers) is illegal. Posting information or an article that is readily available, such as a phone number or an address is not unless it can be proven that the posting of such information could be perceived as a threat by a reasonable individual.
Online Crimes: Hate Speech
Hate speech is protected under the first amendment. However, if that hate speech crosses the line into a threat, it is no longer protected. While hate speech isn’t illegal, it can still get you in trouble and land you in hot water with your job, school, parents, and friends, or the online platforms you use itself. Hate speech online is any form of expression that creates a sense of bullying and harassment, for example: an individual intends to humiliate, vilify, or incite someone based on race, skin color, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual identity, or gender identity. It is within the online platform’s right to ban hate speech since they are private platforms.
Online Crimes: Rumors
Posting rumors or comments about another individual will not lead to criminal prosecution unless it crosses the line into stalking, harassment, or threats. However, depending on the information being spread, the besmirched individual can sue for defamation. For example, if a group of students spreads rumors, makes fun of, or calling names and insults their teacher on Facebook, the students may not go to jail. However, such behavior may lead to natural consequences with students’ parents, school, and police. In addition, it can damage involved individuals’ reputation.
Online Crimes: Illegal Activity
Posting information or photos about illegal activity—using drugs, stealing, vandalism, etc.—isn’t illegal in and of itself, but it is essentially asking legal enforcement to arrest you. There have been several cases of individuals posting videos or photographs of assaults and other crimes that have led to their arrests. Again, it’s not a crime, but it will make legal enforcement’s job easier. On the contrary, selling drugs or other illegal items online will get you in trouble with legal authority and will put your life and freedom on the line.
Beyond the Law
Being charged with a crime isn’t the only thing that can happen for posting certain things online. You can also lose your job and damage your reputation. Be mindful of the things you say and post as you never know who is watching or reading. Familiarize yourself with your employer’s social media policy if they have one.
Don’t Get Busted for Sharing
Charged with a crime? Know your rights—get Mike G Law on your side.
While it’s certainly illegal to post certain content online, there are plenty of gray areas. Don’t take the fall for poorly worded laws and a shifting legal landscape online. Make sure you’re protected.
Mike G Law is committed to providing the best legal defense to each of his clients. As a former prosecutor, he understands the ways in which the law and law enforcement can be overreaching and does his best to protect his clients. If you’ve been charged with an online crime, don’t speak to law enforcement—call Mike G Law today.