Illegal on the Internet, or just stupid?

Angry Internet posting cat

Angry Internet posting cat

Elizabeth Lauten‘s resignation and a case pending with the U.S. Supreme Court regarding Facebook posts give us a good reminder about what’s stupid, if not outright illegal, to post on the Internet.

Elizabeth Lauten was the Communications Director for Republican Congressman Stephen Fincher of Tennessee. Last Wednesday, Lauten apparently saw the television and/or photographic coverage of President Barack Obama “pardoning” the national turkey for Thanksgiving, an annual, lighthearted White House tradition since President George H.W. Bush “pardoned” a turkey at Thanksgiving time 1989. Some journalists noted, in a humorous way, that President Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, looked a bit bored during some parts of the ceremony (but not all parts, as the photos and video in the links above show). But Lauten, apparently getting her Christmas Scrooge on a bit early, wrote a rather cheap and bitter Facebook post:

Dear Sasha and Malia, I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play. Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department. Nevertheless, stretch yourself. Rise to the occasion. Act like being in the White House matters to you. Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar. And certainly don’t make faces during televised public events.

The backlash against Elizabeth Lauten for her Facebook post was immediate. For example, at the Twitter hasthtag #ElizabethLauten, some accused Lauten of  being a “cyber bully.” The Smoking Gun website reported that Lauten had been arrested at age 17 for shoplifting. Some commenters noted that President George W. Bush‘s daughters, Jenna and Barbara, displayed a true lack of class, of the criminal kind, during Bush’s time in the White House. Others noted simply that teenage girls appearing bored or even a bit rebellious now and then isn’t exactly new or newsworthy. On Monday, Lauten resigned from her Congressional staff position, writing on her Facebook page:

I wanted to take a moment and apologize for a post I made on Facebook earlier today judging Sasha and Malia Obama at the annual White House turkey pardoning ceremony:

When I first posted on Facebook I reacted to an article and quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager. After many hours of prayer, talking to my parents and re-reading my words online, I can see more clearly how hurtful my words were. Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart. Furthermore, I’d like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and I pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.

At the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case about how far someone can go in their Facebook writings without breaking the law. In Elonis v. United States, a Pennsylvania man is challenging his criminal conviction for making threats against his estranged wife and law enforcement officials. Among the Facebook  postings by the husband, Anthony Elonis, were statements such as:

There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.

Elonis also posted:

I’ve got enough explosives to take care of the state police and the sheriff’s department. Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined. And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.

Other posts by Elonis along similar lines can be read here. Although Elonis says that he was just writing fictitious rap lyrics with no specific intent to injure anyone, Elonis was originally arrested and convicted because the First Amendment does not protect all speech. For example, in addition to certain types of threats, obscenity, slander, some false advertising claims, and lying on government applications and forms to obtain benefits are not protected by the Constitution.

The Supreme Court will determine whether the Facebook posts by Anthony Elonis crossed this line into unprotected speech. But regardless of whether his postings on Facebook were illegal, it’s clear that posting them, just like Elizabeth Lauten posting her cheap (thought not illegal) shots against President Obama’s daughters, was stupid. It seems that some Americans need a reminder that posting publicly on social media like Facebook and Twitter is like broadcasting, with the additional attribute of being available for easy access forever.

Indeed, Internet posts can have a much wider reach than traditional radio or television broadcasting, which used to end with the listeners or viewers who caught the broadcast live or on a tape delay. Now, the recipients of Internet broadcasts are themselves broadcasters, who can relay the messages in seconds, to a new set of recipients who can do the same thing, and so on. That’s what meant by something going viral on the Internet.

Given that viruses are generally thought of as dangerous, this holiday season might be a good time to vaccinate yourself and think twice — or at least “Save Draft” where possible — before broadcasting that Facebook or Twitter post in an emotionally heated moment.

Photo provided by Noah Sussman, used under Creative Commons license. http://is.gd/SaoE68

One Response to Illegal on the Internet, or just stupid?
  1. […] By Messaging Matters […]

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