Experts caution that case against Nheru Gowan Littleton could threaten free speech, over intent of comments and specific targeting of posts about police
Michigans attorney general escalated a battle over alleged social media threats against police on Wednesday, filing felony terrorist charges over comments on Facebook that mentioned killing white police officers.
The charges against Detroit resident Nheru Gowan Littleton carry sentences of 20 years each, and test the limits of free speech protections for online threats.
Michigan attorney general Bill Schuettes office said Littleton posted a stream of messages, as details emerged about the 8 July shooting in Dallas that left five officers dead and seven wounded.
To those snipers in Texas, I commend your bravery and actions!!! Littleton allegedly posted on Facebook. Another allegedly said: Kill all white cops!!!
The attorney general charged Littleton, 40, with making a terroristic threat and using a computer to commit a crime, each a felony carrying a 20-year maximum sentence.
Police across the US have been on high alert for online threats against officers since the Dallas shooting, which occurred just days after another incident in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that left three officers dead.
But legal experts say criminal charges over these online threats test the line between whats known as a true threat and the criminalization of free speech.
The government can charge you with a crime for making a true threat, but not for engaging in hyperbole, said Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center. And the key elements are whether someone intended to instill fear and whether that threat was communicated to a person being threatened.
Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, who has jurisdiction over Detroit, declined to bring charges against Littleton in August, citing these concerns.
[Littleton] did not indicate that he was the one who was going to kill all white cops, and never said that his Facebook friends should kill all white cops, Worthys office said in a statement at the time. Further, he did not indicate when all white officers should be killed or which white officers should be killed.
The police chief sought review of the charges by the state. And on Wednesday, Schuette announced he would move forward with the case.
It was a tirade of hate and violence, specifically directed toward police, encouraging people to kill police, Schuette said at a press conference on Wednesday.
Though the comments may be incendiary and violent, experts have said uncertainty over what constitutes a true threat remains a difficult issue for law enforcement. The first amendment gives broad protection to online comments, but doesnt cover whats known as true threats..
Courts have yet to settle what sort of intent is required to show someone is making a genuine threat. But Paulson said it boils down to whether someone is mentioning a specific target.
If somebody says all cops must die theres no individual who would rationally believe that threat was directed to them specifically, he said. Now, its going to create generalized anxiety in the department, but it wouldnt meet the test of a true threat.
Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said the constitution protects free speech that can be disturbing to people and can even appear to encourage illegal conduct.
But under clearly established first amendment rules, unless what someone says is a true threat, a mere generalized statement, particularly in a political context which this was is protected under the first amendment, he said.
Korobkin said what was concerning was that police were going after specifically Facebook postings that they find disturbing to them, because the Facebook postings appear to be about police officers.
Would they be doing this if the Facebook posts were about anyone other than police? he said. If not, then we have a problem.
Paulson said its not uncommon for someone to be charged with making a terroristic threat over social media postings, but unless theyre targeting a building associated with police officers, that would not typically be what youd charge them with.
In these cases, he said, if police discover a threatening remark, officers can, and should follow up with questioning and then make a decision about whether to arrest.
Too often the exact opposite happens, he said. They arrest first, and ask questions later. And thats where constitutional questions arise. Free speech gives you the right to say sometimes outrageous things and not be punished unless you are genuinely threatening an individual.