US legislative remedies for posting threats on social networking sites

18 U.S.C. § 875(c) makes it a US federal crime to transmit a “threat . . . to injure the person of another” via interstate commerce, and using emails to issue such “true threats” satisfies this requirement. To establish a "true threat," some courts have held that the government must prove that the maker of the threat reasonably should have foreseen that statement he uttered would be taken as threat by those to whom it was made. See, e.g., United States v. Fulmer, 108 F.3d 1486, 1491 (1st Cir. Mass. 1997). (So, for example, a trial court held that it was legally permissible to try someone who had, among other things emailed a college dean saying “You will die soon, mother f****r. But you will watch your son die first" and a professor saying "You are on the death list!" United States v Xiang Li, 537 F Supp 2d 431 (2008, ND NY)).


In US v Voneida, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the conviction where the defendant had posted threats to others on his MySpace account. 2009 U.S. App. LEXIS 15567, 2-5 (3d Cir. July 15, 2009). In this case, two days after a student Virginia Tech shot several other students and professors, Voneida, a student at the Harrisburg campus of Penn State University:

"posted several statements and pictures to different parts of his internet MySpace page that were the subject of his conviction. These statements and pictures included: "Someday: I'll make the Virginia Tech incident look like a trip to an amusement park"; "the weary violent types who are sick of self-righteous, lecherous, arrogant, and debauched attitudes displayed by [A]merican youth would band together with me for a day, and allow everyone at schools and universities across the nation to reap the bitter fruit of the seeds that they have been sowing for so long"; expressed "shock[]" that after the Virginia Tech shootings his classmates "were actually surprised that there are people out there who would shoot them if given the opportunity"; "lost my respect for[] the sanctity of human life"; captioned a posting "Virginia Tech Massacre -- They got what they deserved," where he noted his current mood was "extatically [sic] happy," and included a poem dedicated to the Virginia Tech shooter that concluded that the shooter's "undaunted and unquenched" wrath would "sweep across the land"; and a picture of the bloodied Virginia Tech shooter holding two guns superimposed on a cross with the words "martyr," "massacre," "enrage," and "recompense.""

Because students at Voneida's university and elsewhere who were MySpace users or on his “buddy” list, he was considered to have made a threat. The court further noted that “While some of the statements, taken in isolation, may not rise to the level of a threat within the meaning of § 875(c), that was not the context of the case here,” given the recent Virginia Tech shootings.

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