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Court Rules Teen's Mean Tweets Don't Constitute 'True Threat'

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David Nogueras
/
KPLU

At what point does a threatening message on social media rise to the level of criminal conduct, particularly when you’re talking about teenagers? It’s something courts are increasingly having to deal with. A recent decision by the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington is a case in point. At Bellingham High School in 2013, two girls were using the social media site Twitter to communicate with each other. According to court filings, which refer to the teenagers by initials, J.K. referred to something that happened between the two of them in middle school.

“To be honest, I still want to punch you in the throat,” J.K. tweeted to S.G.

She followed with another tweet using the girl’s name and the hashtag “must die.”

S.G. reported the tweets to school authorities. The police got involved. Eventually, J.K. was charged and convicted in juvenile court of the crime of cyberstalking.

Washington's cyberstalking statute makes it illegal to use online language intended to “embarrass, harass and torment” a victim. 

But, the Court of Appeals of the State of Washington, Division One, overturned the conviction. The court said that “mean tweets don’t necessarily constitute a true threat.”

The court pointed out that the victim in this case admitted she wasn’t really scared by the tweets.

In addition, the court pointed out that girl sending the tweets testified that she used Twitter as a sort of online diary where she expressed her “thoughts and feelings" and that should be protected by the First Amendment.

Paula reports on groundbreaking legal decisions in Washington State and on trends in crime and law enforcement. She’s been at KNKX since 1989 and has covered the Law and Justice beat for the past 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.