by | last updated on January 19, 2016

Lessons Learned from Ebony Dickens

If you think you can write whatever you want on Facebook because you are protected by the First Amendment, think again. Ebony Dickens of Georgia suggested black people should “rise up and shoot at every white cop in the nation starting NOW” on her Facebook account. She continued her rant with, “Might kill at least fifteen tomorrow. I’m plotting now.”

Many people think freedom of speech means you have the right to communicate your opinions and ideas without understanding there are certain limitations in place. In Dickens’s case, the local police, FBI, DHS, and New York Police arrested her and charged her with disseminating information related to terrorist acts; – one of the restrictions on freedom of speech. Additional charges related to her post may follow.

Freedom of Speech Violations

Here are some additional freedom of speech violations on Facebook.

  • Anthony Elonis was convicted in 2011 of five counts of interstate communication of threats. In his trial, federal prosecutors presented testimony from his estranged wife, former co-workers and law enforcement officials who were the subject of Facebook posts describing dark fantasies through rap songs. He is currently appealing his case to the Supreme Court in the Elonis v. United States. His case was presented in December of 2014, but a decision has not yet been reached.
  • Last month, a Marist High School student was charged with posting a threatening message on Facebook that was directed at one of his teachers. The 16-year-old boy was brought in to the police station and charged with making a cyber threat. The boy was released to his parents and will appear in court May 14, 2015.
  • A 16-year-old boy said he was bored before he posted a threat on Facebook that there might be a shooting at a mall or at a school. The boy was a brought in by his mother and booked into the Juvenile Detention Center on charges of terrorism and threatening and disruption of an educational facility.

Why, if we have freedom of speech, which is the political right to communicate one’s opinions and ideas, are some people finding themselves in trouble with the law? Because, of certain restrictions placed on our First Amendment right, including hate speech, incitement, fighting words, cyber bulling, true threats, public security, public order, public nuisance, among others.

Harm Principle

Lines can become blurred when it comes to what is protected as free speech and what isn’t. The “harm principle” and the “offense principal” limits freedom of speech based on whether the opinions expressed can cause harm or not. Conversely, hyperbole or joke threats are protected free speech. The blur occurs determining whether the intent was meant as a joke or whether it was a true threat.

The Supreme Court case, Elonis v. United States may directly affect Dickens’ case. This case, which has not yet been ruled on, argues whether or not the speaker has to actually intend the speech to be a threat, or is it enough that a reasonable person would considered it a true threat.

This case comes down to two questions: (1) Did Dickens intend for her Facebook post to be a real threat against the police? (2) Would a reasonable person reading her Facebook post think Dickens really intended to kill the police?  If the court considers it a real threat, Dickens’ speech will not be protected under the First Amendment.