Think you live in a free country where your rights, including freedom of speech, are protected by the Constitution? Don’t be so sure. Expressing your views, especially if they are controversial or in poor taste, is becoming a good way to land in jail for a long time. Take, for example, the case of Justin Carter. Carter is a nineteen-year-old who was arrested in Austin on February 14 after an argument he was involved in during an online video game session carried over to Facebook where he made some inadvisable remarks. According to court documents, Carter’s opponent called him, “crazy,” so Carter decided to respond with an over-the-top comeback.
“I’m fucked in the head alright. I think I’ma (sic) shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them.”
Carter maintains that his comments were taken out of context and that he wrote them sarcastically. In fact, the police record states that he ended his comment with the abbreviations J.K., which stands for ‘Just Kidding’ and LOL, which stands for ‘Laughing Out Loud’. Nonetheless, an anonymous person—reportedly a total stranger in Canada according to Justin’s father Jack Carter— saw the comment and contacted the authorities. The tip was routed to a regional intelligence center and, according to Carter’s pro bono lawyer Donald Flanary, Carter was arrested before police even confirmed that the post came from his computer.
After searching Carter’s apartment and computer, police found no weapons and no further evidence that he posed a threat to others. Still, Carter was transferred to Comal County Jail where he was thought to have been when he posted the Facebook comments, and remained in jail for nearly five months, charged with a third degree felony of making terroristic threats. A judge set his bond at $500,000, an amount his family couldn’t afford to pay.
On July 11, after an arduous publicity campaign by Carter’s parents, an anonymous donor paid his bail and Justin walked free, but he could still face up to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. As a first-time offender Carter may be eligible for deferred adjudication community supervision, according to a press release from Comal County District Attorney Jennifer Tharp. If Carter keeps his nose clean for the duration, it would not result in a criminal record, but Carter’s father says the experience has left Justin traumatized. According to his mother, Jennifer Carter, Justin was assaulted a number of times and locked in solitary confinement for weeks.
“Without getting into the really nasty details, he’s had concussions, black eyes, moved four times from base for his own protection,” his father told NPR. “He’s been put in solitary confinement, nude, for days on end because he’s depressed.”
The case is just the latest in a disturbing trend of creeping authoritarianism in the United States. You don’t have to look far these days to see evidence of it. Forty year-old Jeffrey Olson in San Diego, for example, was charged with vandalism for writing anti-bank sentiments in chalk on public sidewalks. That case was dismissed in July, but had it turned out for the worst, Olson could have landed in jail for 13 years.
Not so lucky is 19 year-old Joshua Pillault of Oxford, Mississippi who was arrested in October of last year for allegedly joking in a gaming chat room that he was going to commit a Columbine-style hit on his former high school.
Like Carter, Pillault’s home was searched and no weapons or other evidence that he was serious about his threats were found. Pillault was coerced into talking to police without a lawyer and, though he maintained his remarks weren’t serious, he remained in jail, charged with making threats in interstate and foreign commerce and threatening property damage, and was denied bail. Finally, on June 20, hoping for a lighter sentence, Pillault plead guilty. He is now awaiting a mental evaluation after which sentencing will take place. Pillault could get 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
While Carter and Pillault’s comments were insensitive and thoughtless isn’t the point of the First Amendment that we tolerate speech even when we don’t agree with it? It’s disturbing that we’re criminalizing the speech of citizens at the same tim so many of us express little discomfort with the NSA spying on private conversations. Are we safe venting our anger anywhere? I, for one, am starting to feel a little paranoid.