Nineteen-year-old Justin Carter is on suicide watch in a Texas jail, where he has been sitting since February, accused of making a "terroristic threat" on Facebook.
When an online friend told him he was "messed up in the head," he replied, "Oh yeah, I'm real messed up in the head, I'm going to go shoot up a school full of kids ... " He added "lol" and "jk," apparently to take the edge off the snark.
A Canadian Facebook user tipped off the police, who found no evidence of intent or capacity on Carter's part to harm anyone — either in the home or on his computer.
A nearly identical case in Oxford, Miss., has 19-year old Josh Pillault behind bars, nine months and counting. A video game taunt led to a tasteless joke followed by SWAT team raid a plea without a lawyer.
Under Supreme Court doctrine laid out in 1969, a tasteless and violent joke is protected, so long as there is no evidence of a "truth threat." And yet Justin Carter and Josh Pillault sit behind bars, leaving parents and supporters to wonder if casual online comments can mar young lives, just what First Amendment protections mean.
Free speech is just one of many places where the U.S. Bill of Rights remains a work in progress 222 years after it became law — a continuing struggle between government claims for order and security, and the individual's interest in clarity and freedom. This past year, the struggle played out in numerous areas, including free speech and search and seizure rules, to touch just a few.
It may not be coincidental that Justin Carter's nemesis lives in Canada. Although Canada shares a common British legal heritage with the U.S., it lacks the strong individual protections found in the U.S. Bill of Rights.
One reason Carter's legal woes in Texas shock the American mind is that U.S. free speech protections — even the right to say stupid, incendiary or hateful things — have always been more robust than those of other democratic states.
Canada's Supreme Court held earlier this year in Saskatchewan v. Whatcott that truth is no a defense against human rights laws that suppress "hateful speech." The case featured a fundamentalist Christian who circulated pamphlets condemning the "teaching homosexuality" in schools.
"Truthful statements can be interlaced with harmful ones or otherwise presented in a manner that would meet the definition of hate speech," Justice Marshall Rothstein wrote.
The Court further ruled that the hate speech doesn't even need to harm anyone to be banned. It's enough if the speech may "tend to expose" a group to hatred, including speech that may "ridicule, belittle, or affront the dignity of persons included in these protected groups."
The U.S. Supreme Court expects belittled groups to keep a stiff upper lip. The key decision here came in 1992, in R.A.V. vs. St. Paul, a case involving an iconic American hate scene — a cross burned on a black family's lawn.
The Court ruled unanimously that a local statute forbidding hate speech applied in this case violated the First Amendment if it targets the ideas of the speech, however hateful — just as the court protects offensive jokes that carry no real threat of violence.
U.S. law is thus set sharply apart from the neighbor to the North. But as Justin Carter discovered, there is often a disconnect between what the court says and what officials actually do.
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