The Rapper Defense

Should the standards of what constitutes an actionable threat of physical violence be changed in the era of the internet and social media?  Next week the Supreme Court will consider that question, which probes the tender intersection of the First Amendment, criminal law, and society’s interest in protecting people from impending harm.

For years the prevailing standard has been that “true threats” to harm another person are not protected free speech and can be punished under the criminal law.  The issue raised by the Supreme Court case is whether prosecutors should be required to prove that the speaker had a “subjective intent” to threaten, as opposed to showing that an objective person would consider the statements to be threatening.  A requirement of subjective intent obviously would be harder to prove.

In the Supreme Court case, the defendant created Facebook posts about his estranged wife, writing about “a thousand ways to kill you” and asking whether the protection from abuse order she received was “thick enough to stop a bullet.”  His lawyers contend that the statements are simply “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events” and references to the violent, misogynistic imagery of the defendant’s favorite rappers.  The defendant also argues that other actions like the placement of an emoticon — a face with its tongue sticking out, purportedly to indicate “jest” — must be considered in assessing whether the speaker truly intends menacing behavior or is just blowing off steam.

I’m a big supporter of free speech, and exercises in line-drawing are always difficult, but I don’t see any need to revisit long-time legal standards just because the internet has been developed.  Domestic abuse is a huge problem, and we need to protect the abused.  If prosecutors are required to prove “subjective intent,” and the placement of emoticons or the couching of unambiguous threats of violence in the context of rap lyrics become viable defenses, the ability to protect the abused will be diminished.  I don’t know of any real “therapy” that encourages disturbed people to make specific threats of violence, and I don’t buy the argument that standards of lawful behavior should be reduced simply because some anonymous people treat the internet as a kind of free-for-all zone.

Standards exist for a reason, and we shouldn’t be in a hurry to lower them.  It’s not unfair to hold people whose behavior already has given rise to legitimate concern — like the defendant in the Supreme Court case who was the subject of a protection from abuse order — accountable for specific violent statements, on social media or otherwise.

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Vote, Or We’ll Shoot This Dog

In a few minutes I’ll be heading to the polls.  I vote because it makes me feel good and because I view it as every eligible American’s civic duty — but I draw the line at sending weirdly threatening letters to people who don’t exercise their franchise.

That’s what happened in the Empire State, where the New York Post reports that the New York State Democratic Committee sent letters to voters promising to check on whether they had gone to the polls.  The letter says: “Who you vote for is your secret. But whether or not you vote is public record.”  It adds that “We will be reviewing voting records . . . to determine whether you joined your neighbors who voted in 2014.”  As a parting shot, the letter states:  “If you do not vote this year, we will be interested to hear why not.”

Apparently this kind of voter turnout technique is called “voter shaming” and has been used in other states.  The New York version, though, has an edge of menace and personal accountability designed to ensure maximum effectiveness.  It reminds me of the classic National Lampoon cover with a gun being held to a worried dog’s head and the tagline:  “If you don’t buy this magazine we’ll kill this dog.”  One can almost imagine thuggish, pin-striped representatives of the New York State Democratic Committee knocking on doors and saying:  “Nice little neighborhood you got here.  Be a shame if anything were to happen to it.”

Apparently “voter shaming” has been effective in some places.  I hope it’s effective in New York, too — and the people who got that over-the-top letter all go to the polls and vote against every Democratic candidate, to send a message to the strong-arming jerks who presumed to try to intimidate them into voting in the first place.

As for everyone who lives outside of New York and didn’t receive a “voter shaming” letter, I hope you vote for the candidate of your choice because it’s the right thing to do.

Avoiding Egypt

Going to Egypt to see the sights in the Valley of the Kings has always been a “bucket list” item for me. The beauty and awesome antiquity of the remnants of the Egypt of the Pharaohs exerts an irresistible attraction.

Sadly, I now question whether I’ll ever scratch off that bucket list item — and apparently I’m not alone. Since Egypt has fallen into a crisis involving the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, with leaders being deposed and jailed and street clashes and deaths at demonstrations often in the news, governments have warned about travel to Egypt and tourists have avoided it. In September, tourism was down almost 70% from 2012, and in October — the most recent month for which statistics seem to be available — tourism was down 52% over the prior year.

Tourism is one of the largest segments of the Egyptian economy and one of the largest producers of foreign currency. I am sure that there are many people in Egypt — cab drivers, tour guides, street peddlers, and others — who are suffering due to the sharp drop in tourism. So why would prominent Egyptians be making public statements that simply exacerbate tourist concerns about safety and security? Recently, for example, an Egyptian editor speculated that the United States government might try to assassinate General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the general who ousted the Mohamed Morsi government last summer, and helpfully added that if such an attempt were made, Egyptians would rise up in a “revolution to kill the Americans in the streets.” Not surprisingly, the editor later tried to backtrack from his inflammatory statements and said that his remarks were about terrorism and that he bears no hostility to Americans.

American tourists aren’t idiots, and a half-hearted explanation isn’t going to cure the fact that such bloody rhetoric was used in the first place. If you like to travel, your bucket list of destinations probably is a long one. There are plenty of interesting faraway places to visit where you don’t need to worry that your visit might put your life in danger. Right now, the prevailing sense is that Egypt isn’t one of them.