A Sarasota County high-school student’s statement on Twitter that he “can’t WAIT to shoot up my school” does not constitute a criminal threat under Florida law, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned a juvenile-delinquency ruling involving “J.A.W.,” the student who sent the tweets in 2014. But in a rare step, the court also suggested that the Legislature might want to look at updating the state’s law against violent threats — originally approved in 1913 — to account for the growth of social media.
“With this popularity comes the unfortunate but inevitable problem that social media posts, like any other form of communication, can be used to make threats of violence,” Judge Nelly Khouzam wrote for the court. “But many threats made on social media will fall outside the narrow language of (the law), which was originally written with pen-and-paper letters in mind.”
The law was updated in 2010 to account for electronic communications, but because it requires the threat to be sent to the person threatened or a family member of that person, the court ruled that it doesn’t always apply to posts on social media.
J.A.W., who is not identified by name in the ruling because he was a juvenile, sent out several tweets that suggested he would open fire at his school. In one post, he wrote: “night f[***]ing sucked can’t wait to shoot up my school soon,” according to the court. He also tweeted out “it’s time,” accompanied by a picture of a gun being slipped into a backpack.
Meanwhile, there was at least one tweet that indicated he might be joking, as J.A.W. later said he was. “My mom and dad think I’m serious about shooting up my school I’m dying,” he wrote. He later apologized on Twitter “to anyone who took me seriously” and said he didn’t even own a weapon.
J.A.W. claimed the tweets were, in the court’s words, part of a joke with a “group of friends who often joked about being unfairly stereotyped as potentially violent based on their interest in video games and rock music.”
The student’s tweets were found by GeoCop, a company formed to scour social media for threats of school violence. The company notified law enforcement, which then told officials at Sarasota High School about the threat. As the school planned to let students out and officers went to the campus, J.A.W. was arrested at his home.
But the tweets don’t fall under part of the law that punishes anyone who “sends or procures the sending of” a written threat, Khouzam wrote, brushing aside the state’s argument that J.A.W. procured the actions of those who brought the threat to the school’s attention.
“There was no evidence that any of J.A.W.’s Twitter followers were students or staff at the school or members of their families,” Khouzam wrote. “By the time it was received by the school, the threat was several steps removed from its original context.”
Courts have worked for several years to adapt state law to the ever-changing world of social media. In a 2013 case, the 1st District Court of Appeal found that a threat on Facebook violated the law. But Khouzam said that case was different because one of the defendant’s Facebook friends was a mutual relative of one of the people threatened in the post.
Khouzam’s opinion, joined by Judges Darryl Casanueva and Matthew Lucas, also suggested that lawmakers consider amending the law to cover social media threats that are public and can move around the internet quickly.
“In this context, a threat of violence made publicly on social media is likely to reach its target and cause fear of bodily harm just like a traditional letter might,” she wrote. “The facts of the instant case exemplify this phenomenon.”