12-Year-Old Arrested Over Instagram Post Showing Guns, Bombs
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In a world where everything happens online, Americans struggle to identify what is and what is not a credible threat. But while doing so, liberty advocates suggest, authorities should go above and beyond to avoid trampling people’s freedom of speech rights.
In the state of Virginia, a middle school student is currently facing charges over an online post in which she used “emojis” of guns and bombs. According to the Washington Post, the 12-year-old from Fairfax, VA was accused of threatening Sidney Lanier Middle School, which led to legal charges. Police justified the legal move by claiming that the girl had posted a message on her Instagram account in December that features a gun, a bomb, and a knife, all in the “emoji” formats.
The message read in part:
Killing (gun emoji)
“meet me in the library Tuesday” (gun, knife and bomb emoji)
After the post went live, authorities launched an investigation that led to the IP used by the 12-year-old. With a search warrant in hand, police officers learned that the girl had crafted the post, but had used another student’s name to publish it. After admitting to being the author of the post, police charged her with threatening the school and computer harassment.
While police often try to judge how serious the threat is in order to assess whether they should get involved, attorneys often argue that emoji should not be used as evidence. According to experts, it’s difficult to determine in court what the defendant means to express by the emoji he or she uses. The confusion often leads to mistakes, and police investigators often target individuals who are just being playful.
The case is now on track for juvenile court, which should happen later this month. According to the child’s mother, who still hasn’t been identified publicly, the post was created to “bully” another student. The mother also told the Washington Post that charges against her daughter were unwarranted.
According to RT.com, many other cases involving school children or older social media users and emojis ended up resulting in legal troubles for the individuals involved.
At least one case involved the use of the “:-P” emoji, which represents a face sticking a tongue out.
Anthony Elonis from Pennsylvania was arrested over allegedly threatening his estranged wife via Facebook posts. The man argued his conviction should be overturned considering he had posted the alleged threats as his rapper persona, and that the posts in question, which included graphically violent lyrics about killing his wife, were all fictitious. To him, the lyrics were art or therapy. Since many of the posts were followed by the “:-P” emoji, Elonis says he assumed people would understand those posts were jests.
During the Elonis trial, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts quoted Eminem lyrics during his oral arguments, claiming that the lyrics he had read to the court weren’t much different from the words posted online by Elonis. Using the Eminem lyrics, Justice Roberts wanted to make others think about the posts and when a piece of communication crosses the line into being a threat.
While the justices ultimately sided with Elonis, the law enforcement community has yet to refrain from taking emojis into account when assessing threats online.