As an American citizen, you have the right to free speech. You should be able to question those in power without fear of reprisal, stand up for yourself, tell jokes that may seem impertinent or off-color, and even vent your feelings once in a while. That’s what we say, at least, but there have always been limitations to this protected right.

You can’t, for example, call in a bomb threat as a joke or yell “fire!” in a crowded theater. These are things that can cause harm to others even if the bomb and fire don’t really exist, and most people know when to reign themselves in with everyday life.

Unfortunately, for many of us, a large portion of our everyday life happens as much on social media sites as it does in the real world, and that’s where lines start to blur and things get confusing. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled against a man who made repeated specific threatening comments about his ex-wife and others on Facebook.

His attorney argued that the man was blowing off steam and joking around, but the justices decided that didn’t matter.

Intention vs. Perceived Threat

If you walk up to your coworker and say, “Man, I’m going to kill you” because they ditched you at the bar the night before, chances are good that both of you know there’s no real threat there. However, if you approach the same coworker and say the same thing because that individual bad-mouthed you to the boss and caused you to get passed over for promotion, the situation isn’t as clear cut.

Still, because you’re delivering the message in person, there are physical and verbal cues that both of you exhibit that speak toward the nature of the conversation. Was it truly intimidating and frightening? Were you both angry? Was there laughing and joking? These are all things that can mitigate (or worsen) the things that we say, but when we use social media, they don’t really exist.

Because of this, the accused man’s lawyer was left to argue that his client never had an intent to commit violence, while the ex-wife’s lawyer said that the threats – jokes or not – made her truly afraid. Ultimately, the justices said that a person’s intentions are less important than the results of what they say. In short, they ruled against the ex-husband because he said things that put his ex-wife in fear of her life.

All of this is a long way of saying that you have to be very careful about your online communication, and always take charges of domestic violence or threatening behavior seriously. If you are surprised to receive a criminal charge for something you said online, get in touch with an experienced Texas defense attorney immediately. James Whalen is here to help, but you have to call him first: 214-368-2560 or 855-892-1939 (toll-free).