Florida Legislators Urged to Revisit Threat Law

     (CN) — A 16-year-old’s tweet saying he “can’t wait to shoot up my school” is not a criminal threat under current Florida law, a state appeals court ruled, noting the law at issue hasn’t been updated in over a century.
     Joshua Alexander Wilson, identified as J.A.W. in the judgment because he was a juvenile at the time, was arrested in December 2014 for posting a number of tweets on his Twitter feed indicating he was thinking about carrying out a school shooting.
     Over several days, he posted the following tweets: “can’t WAIT to shoot up my school;” “it’s time” (accompanied by a photo of a gun being put in a backpack); “My mom and dad think I’m serious about shooting up my school I’m dying;” “school getting shot up on Tuesday;” and “night f***ing sucked can’t wait to shoot up my school soon.”
     His posts were retweeted and reported to law enforcement authorities, who arrested him for making criminal threats.
     Before his arrest, Wilson tweeted, “I sincerely apologize to anyone who took me seriously. I love my high school and honestly own no weapons to want to harm anyone in any way.”
     He maintains that the tweets were meant as a joke, and a comment on the fact that he and his friends are unfairly stereotyped as potentially violent based on their interest in video games.
     Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals overturned Wilson’s juvenile delinquency finding Wednesday based on the narrow scope of Florida law. The panel’s opinion indicated that state law does not adequately cover threats made on social media.
     “The type of threats at issue in this case pose a serious problem,” Judge Nelly Khouzam said, writing for the three-judge panel.
     However, Florida’s criminal threat statute only applies when a threat is directly communicated to a specific victim or their family member.
     “Here, the state did not present any evidence that J.A.W.’s threat was received directly by any students or staff at Sarasota High School or any of their family members,” Khouzam wrote. “The receipt of the threat by the school was simply too far removed from the original context in which it was posted to support J.A.W.’s disposition for sending written threats to kill or do bodily injury.”
     The panel seemed to come to its conclusion reluctantly, acknowledging the potential that such tweets could be meant very seriously and that current law is not equipped to penalize people who make threats on Twitter.
     “Many threats made on social media will fall outside the narrow language of section 836.10, which was originally written with pen-and-paper letters in mind. The statute was enacted in 1913, and since that time its language has remained virtually the same,” Khouzam said.
     Although a tweet like Wilson’s was posted publicly for anyone on the Internet to see, the judges found that the possibility for a post to “go viral” makes it likely that the post will reach its target and cause a fear of bodily harm, just like a letter.
     “Accordingly, the legislature may wish to revisit section 836.10 to address the modern problem of threats issued and shared publicly on social media,” the judgment concluded.

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