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What makes an online threat illegal?

Social media has long since crossed the line between novel and everyday, a fact that has prompted lawmakers to embrace new laws that create a safer and less hostile environment for users. Many of the laws strive to prevent online threats and allow for the persecution of those who make them. Unfortunately for cyberbully victims, the Supreme Court seems to take the stance that online threats are merely a form of free speech. However, that has not stopped states such as Georgia from regulating and prosecuting individuals whom they believe have made credible online threats. 

If you made an online threat and now want to know if the law can prosecute you for a crime, you need to first understand when an online threat is and is not illegal. FindLaw details a few ways to help you differentiate between an illegal and legal online threat.

First and foremost, context matters. If you said something that you clearly intended to be a joke or satire, the law cannot do anything about it. However, if you used threatening language in a context suggestive of your actual intent, law enforcement may look more closely at the matter. Also, you should note that context changes with the times. If you make a hijacking joke days after a terrorist hijacks a plane, others may not consider your joke as being just in poor taste — rather, they may view it as a threat.  

Additionally, though most states do not have specific laws about online threats, they do have laws against bullying and criminal threats. To determine if an online threat is illegal, a state may look at the individual characteristics of each threat. If the characteristics of an online threat would amount to a criminal, in-person or telephonic threat, then the state would likely consider the online threat illegal. Considerations the state would take into consideration are as follows. 

  •       To whom did you make the threat?
  •       What, exactly, did you threaten?
  •       Is the threat credible?
  •       Did you mean what you said?

If you made a seemingly credible threat of a specific harm to a specific person, the law may determine your threat is legitimate and therefore illegal. However, if your threat did not identify any one person, and if it does not specify a specific harm, the courts may have a hard time proving your threat as criminal.

The information in this post is for educational purposes only. It should not be construed as legal advice. 

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