Facebook threats vs. Free speech - WDAM.COM - TV 7 - News, Weather and Sports

Facebook threats vs. Free speech

Facebook is giving Heather Clouse a major headache lately -- she feels she's being bullied on the social networking site, and fears her life could be in danger.

"There are people who have killed themselves because of this and nobody takes it seriously until somebody is dead and that is a problem," she says.

The problems began after she started a website called "Dear Deployment I Hate You." It's a site of support for people with deployed loved ones or spouses overseas.

Her boyfriend was deployed in 2010. The first sign of trouble, she says people had a problem that she was not married.

"There are military spouses who will not accept help from me or use the website because I am not married and I must not know what it is like to go through it," Clouse explains. Soon after, someone created an anti-Heather Facebook page called "Take the internet away from Heather Clouse."

Many postings on the page are very graphic - calls for her to be attacked, shot, and worse.

"If somebody did kill me like they said they were going to do or if I killed my self because of this, then everybody would wonder and step back and wonder 'Well, why didn't anybody do anything,'" she says.

So are the web page and postings even legal, or are they truly a threat?

Legal Expert Steve Benjamin says: "She may not like what was said about her, but that is part of free speech -- having to endure statements that are mean, petty ridiculous or insulting."

In Benjamin's opinion, Clouse doesn't have a case. He says the Facebook page and the postings are legal. But be warned, it is illegal to truly threaten someone over the computer. Proving it, however, may be difficult.

There is a fine line and a specific definition of what the law considers a true threat.

"It has to be a serious expression of an intent to do bodily harm. A mere statement that somebody should suffer bodily harm is a statement of very strong personal opinion, but it's not under the law a true threat," Benjamin says. 

For example, a posting where a person says, "one night while she is walking to the car, bam, someone puts a bullet in her skull" is not considered a threat. Benjamin says these type of statements are only opinions and considered free speech.

The police department investigated Heather's case, but found no violation of the law. Despite this, police say they take threats seriously and if you feel your life is in danger you should contact them.

As for Heather, regardless of the law she still feels threatened and wants to see the laws change.

"There is no cyber police; there is nobody that can come to my rescue because our laws have not caught up with the times," she says.

If you find yourself in a similar situation to Heather's, our legal expert says the best advice may be just to ignore it. Another important tip: Don't erase the page or comments you feel are threats. Keep them and turn them over to the police.

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