Feeling angry enough to want to kill somebody?
Impulsive enough to want to say it on Twitter?
It better not be the president of the United States, or you might end up spending time behind bars just for hitting “Tweet.” Those 140 characters – sent in a state of less than total sobriety – translated into a year in federal prison for one man, and he’s not alone.
A New York Times report Wednesday, “140 Characters Spell Charges and Jail,” chronicled two men sentenced to prison and a third on probation for tweeting “threats” against the president. That’s if you consider something like, “Let’s Go Kill the President” “I think we could get the president with cyanide! #MakeItSlow” a real threat. Or if you think “Ima assassinate president Obama this evening!” a plan for the night.
The Secret Service did.
The sentences so far: One man got a year federal time; one six months; the third got three years’ probation.
In a way, there’s nothing new about this. According to The Times report, threatening the president or anyone under Secret Service protection carries a punishment of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, regardless of whether the threat was going to be carried out.
But that law was written in an era where it actually took some effort to make even an empty threat more public than the next bar stool – like taking the trouble to write a letter – and that might make sense, with discretion. But when just about anybody can broadcast their thoughts to literally millions with hardly a seconds’ thought or intent, it borders on Orwellian. (And that’s even without the National Security Agency tapping in on everything we do with our phones.)
And something else that makes the story especially interesting is the treatment The Times gave it: Page 14A of the national edition.
Both men sentenced to prison are black — a fact that goes unmentioned in the Times story, though a picture makes it clear in one case. (The third man is apparently Hispanic.)
Does anyone doubt The Times would have treated a story about two white men sentenced to prison for making the same empty Twitter “threats” about President Obama as part of a rising surge of violent racism sweeping the country? Probably on Page 1?
Does anyone doubt that a story about two black men sentenced to prison for making empty Twitter threats about a President Bush or a President Mitt Romney would be treated as another example of the justice system’s “war against black men?” Again on Page 1?
The Times, they are’t a- changin’.
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