Earlier today I discussed the uproar over a poll on Facebook asking "should Obama be killed." Someone reported it to the Secret Service, the poll was pulled (it's not clear to me by whom), and Facebook even disabled the poll application for now. There was much argument, here or elsewhere, about whether the poll was a criminal threat. My position is that it is clearly not, because it does not meet the legal definition of a "true threat" — that is, that is to say:
a statement, written or oral, [made] in a context or under such circumstances wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily harm upon or to take the life of the President. [emphasis added]
Here is the poll.
I submit that this cannot reasonably be interpreted as an expression of serious intent to inflict harm on the President. It's presented as a question rather than as a statement of intent. It's presented on Facebook. It's presented by someone with a Borat icon. "If he cuts my health care" suggests satire or political hyperbole. And so on.
Now, Facebook is private, and had every right to delete the poll (if they did) and disable an app that allowed users to make such a poll. That's true whether this is a "true threat" or not.
But here's my question:
Do Facebook, and the Secret Service, and the people who are very upset by this poll, think that some Facebook threats are more true than others?
See, I noticed that Charlie Spiering at the Washington Examiner asserted that Facebook still permits groups that involve threats to kill former President Bush. Being of a skeptical nature, I decided to double-check that. I logged onto Facebook and used the elaborate investigative tactic of typing "kill Bush" into the search box. Out spilled many, many results. Now, not all of those involve exhortations to kill President Bush. But a number do — a number that preceded President Obama's election. For instance, these were in the first dozen results:
Now, why do you suppose that these are still up? Why do you suppose the Secret Service did not ask Facebook to take those down, as they apparently did with the Obama poll, or that Facebook did not take them down of their own initiative? We could speculate that they support such attacks on Bush but opposes them on Obama. That's very silly as to the Secret Service, and I think it's unlikely as to Facebook. We could speculate that nobody ever reported these groups — or any of the many other ones with similar language — to Facebook or the Secret Service. That, too, strikes me as unlikely during the contentious Bush years, when Bush supporters were vigilant for overheated left-wing rhetoric, and when the Secret Service expanded its web-searching operations to monitor threats to the President.
Or maybe, just maybe, the Secret Service and Facebook knew about these groups, but reasonably and correctly decided that they were political hyperbole and not rationally interpreted as true threats. It's entirely possible that the Secret Service investigated — as they tend to do even with clear political hyperbole — and determined that the groups were obviously not actionable, and required no further response. It's entirely possible that Facebook decided that these pages were obnoxious and juvenile, but ultimately not so inappropriate that they needed to be taken down.
But I'd like to know — why the different response to the Obama poll? What, exactly, makes that poll more of a true threat than these pages? Can anyone articulate a principled reason that the poll — which is posed as a question, where some of these are posed as statements of desire or intent — is more easily interpreted as a genuine statement of intent to harm the President?
I'd really like to know.
Let me make this clear: I do not ask this in service of the point "they did it to Bush, so it is OK to do it to Obama." Both the poll, and the pages above, are loathsome and should be condemned. I also do not raise the point to say "OMG WTF lol, liberals are hypocrites." Some liberals are — as are some conservatives — but that's just not the point. I genuinely want to know — why some, and not others? Why don't the parties involved here have a coherent and consistent view of what a true threat is?
Edited to add: I emailed Facebook Wednesday morning, linking this post and asking them if they had a principled basis to delete one and not another. (I didn't ask them to delete these posts.) As of tonight — about 24 hours after I wrote this — Facebook took down four of the five pages above without comment.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Gawker, Money, Speech, And Justice - August 18th, 2016
- Lawsplainer: No, Donald Trump's "Second Amendment" Comment Isn't Criminal - August 9th, 2016
- Why Openness About Mental Illness is Worth The Effort And Discomfort - August 9th, 2016
- A Rare Federal Indictment For Online Threats Against Game Industry - July 28th, 2016
- John Hinckley, Jr. and the Rule of Law - July 27th, 2016