Online harassment is pervasive. Death threats on the Internet are a dime a dozen and if you’re a woman there’s a good chance punk kids are going to subject you to a constant stream of variations on “Show me your tits,” followed by accusations that you’re a whore and should be killed. Anybody who has played online games has probably lost track of how many times pissed off children have claimed to have slept with their mother and challenged them to a fight in real life.
I’ve received enough threats online that I could paper my living room walls if I printed them all off but I mostly ignore them because I don’t really care. However, if you do feel the threats are credible and report them to the police you’ll likely receive little more than a shrug and a claim that there’s nothing the department can do. Things are a bit different when the harassment is aimed at police officers though:
Five police officers were killed in the Dallas shootings, constituting the highest number of police casualties in an attack since September 11. And as a result, law enforcement officials everywhere are suddenly much more sensitive to threats against their lives.
But one result has been that several police departments across the country have arrested individuals for posts on social media accounts, often from citizen tips — raising concerns among free speech advocates.
The police are like you and me, only better.
Another issue here, as pointed out by The Intercept, is free speech. A lot of people will argue that since many of the posts in question were threatening in nature that free speech doesn’t apply. But statements such as “I have no problem shooting a cop for simple traffic stop cuz they’d have no problem doing it to me,” aren’t threats in my opinion because the person is stating an opinion, not a course of action that they’re planning to pursue. If the statement had been “I will shoot any cop for pulling me over,” then it could been seen differently as the statement is expressing a potential planned course of action (of course it could also been seen as a statement expressing a willingness to defend one’s self). But then questions of means must be answered because a threat is meaningless if the person making it doesn’t have the means to go through with it.
Regardless of your opinions on threats in regards to freedom of speech, there is no question that the police are treating people who threaten them online different than people who threaten regular Janes and Joes. It’s no different than a politician who argues regular people shouldn’t be allowed to carry a gun but then carries a gun themselves or hires armed body guards to protect them.