Twitter Threats and The Law

Twitter Threat LawsThese days, Twitter threats are as commonplace as the Internet itself! And it’s an odd phenomenon too, since, unlike in most blog comment sections, many people use their real identities on the 140-character social networking platform.

Perhaps Twitter’s frantic pace is to blame. After all, people do tend to tweet first and think later.  And that’s all fine and well, but as an Internet lawyer, let me remind you that threatening people on Twitter can land you in some legal trouble with the FBI – and who needs them banging down their door?

Twitter Threats: Legal or Illegal?

Here’s the deal: any credible threat made by one person to another is illegal. And all it takes to trigger an FBI investigation is the fear of the person being threatened. For example, let’s say you’re having a back-and-forth Twitter war with a friend, it gets heated, and you tweet, “I’m going to kill you!” If your friend knows that you’re simply riled up, they’ll probably disregard it and keep on twitter-sparing without a second thought. However, if they really wanted to teach you a lesson, they could contact the authorities, claim genuine fear, and that’s all the FBI needs to hear to start looking into the situation.

Yep, it’s that simple.

Celebrities and Twitter Threats

Last month, two notable celebrity twitter threats hit the news. The first: Kyle Williams, punt returner for the San Francisco 49ers; the second: Taylor Armstrong of Real Housewives fame. Williams’ twitter threats were a result of his two fumbles that arguably cost his team a chance at the big ring; an upcoming book signing in New Jersey prompted the threat against Armstrong (a controversial figure in reality television, I’ve learned).

When the tweets threatening Williams hit the Net, various outlets called for an investigation into the people who let the athlete have it online; Armstrong, at the urging of her online followers and friends, contacted the police immediately after getting a couple of direct tweets indicating that she and her daughter would be kidnapped and harmed if she went through with a book signing in New Jersey.

As of the time of this writing, little has been reported about the Williams’ threateners; but authorities did report that Armstrong’s Twitter threats were the musings of a “disturbed” teenager – who will now, most likely, end up on some watch list.

Government Officials and Terrorist Twitter Threats

If you think the authorities takes threats against private citizens and celebrities seriously, try threatening the President or any other public official – the FBI will be on your doorstep quicker than a thirteen year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

Codified by Title 18, Section 871 of the United States Code, threatening the life of the President is a felony. And the statue is often applied to any elected member of the government.

And learn from the plight of of Paul Chambers; just your average guy, who was arrested, questioned, fined $1,500 and lost his job, all because he tweeted out an angry missive after finding out his plane was delayed.

What To Do If You’ve Been Threatened on Twitter

If you’ve been threatened on Twitter, don’t engage in an online battle with your opponent. The less contact you have with them, the better. Instead, make a hard-copy of the threat. Then, be sure to block that person on your Twitter account. Report the incident to Twitter and provide the evidence.

If you’re genuinely scared, contact the authorities. If possible, your local FBI office is the best place, but your area police will point you in the right direction.

So, what is the lesson in all this? Think before you tweet – because if you don’t, and get a little too feisty with your online language, you may just answer the door one day to find FBI agents at your door. Authorities take Twitter threats very seriously; do yourself a favor and pull back before you go too far.

Aaron Kelly is an Internet lawyer who has litigated many Twitter-related cases. If you need a Twitter lawyer, give the Kelly Law Firm a call, Skype or shoot an email over – we’re here to help with all your online legal issue needs. (And yes, we’ve also helped those who have been accused of making online threats using various online legal and free speech statutes.)

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