Internet Law

Drunken Twitter rants threatening the president can lead to prison time

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Threatening the president can lead to a prison sentence of up to five years under a federal law that does not require proof of intent to carry out the deed. That has posed problems for some Twitter users and blog writers who unwisely post threats.

The New York Times writes about several social media users who ran afoul of the law. Jarvis Britton of Birmingham, Ala., was sentenced to a year in prison after a second round of threatening tweets, posted after the first threats resulted in a visit by Secret Service agents. Britton has described his tweets as stupid jokes posted while drunk; court records show he has also been treated with schizophrenia medication. “Let’s Go Kill the President,” he wrote in one message. “I think we could get the president with cyanide! #MakeItSlow.”

Another Twitter user, Donte Jamar Sims Charlotte, N.C., received a six-month sentence for threats that included, “Ima assassinate president Obama this evening!”

The story reveals that the Secret Service collects reports of suspicious tweets with the @SecretService account, while agents working on the Internet Threat Desk investigate online threats.

Hanni Fakhoury, a staff lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told the Times that careless remarks intended for just a few friends can have widespread impact. “Twitter makes it easier for people to say things they don’t mean seriously and be broadcast far and wide,” Fakhoury said. “If I say online that I want to kill Obama, it’s far harder to assess how serious I am than if I’m standing across the street from the White House and I have a gun.”

One person convicted for threatening to shoot then-candidate Barack Obama has won on appeal, however. The San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on behalf of Walter Bagdasarian, who wrote on his blog that Obama “will have a 50 cal in the head soon.” The court said the comments conveyed “no explicit or implicit threat” and are protected by the First Amendment .

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