Following last week’s shooting in Dallas, in which five police officers were killed, police in Detroit arrested four people for making threats against law enforcement on social media. As of Monday, according to the Detroit News, they had not been charged with a crime.
As the Intercept notes, charges related to online threats are a contentious issue, seen as possibly limiting or having a chilling effect on free speech. Those making threats — even vague ones — have been charged with crimes including disorderly conduct, cyberharassment, and public intimidation. One of the men arrested in Detroit called shooter Micah Johnson “Definitely a Black Hero,” which is a repugnant stance but not really an actionable threat of violence.
Last year, in a case concerning rap lyrics, the Supreme Court ruled that intent is a major factor in online threats. There is a distinction, the majority ruled, over whether someone “transmits a communication for the purpose of issuing a threat, or with knowledge that the communication will be viewed as a threat” or whether they are simply being reckless.
There are a few ironies in police arresting people for reckless, heat-of-the-moment social-media behavior in the midst of a national dialogue about … reckless police behavior. Alongside that is how law enforcement has, by and large, been dismissive of online threats and harassment, particularly against women. There are countless tales of law enforcement responding with a shrug when it comes to online harassment. But now that police are the target, it seems like they’re finally paying attention.