Just as reports surfaced of the U.S. government’s increasing number of requests for personal information on Twitter, the San Antonio Express News revealed an ongoing Texas Department of Public Safety investigation of two people, relating to Twitter posts advocating the death penalty for the Governor of Texas among others.
The suspicious posts, shown below, were made in response to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s signing of a bill restricting abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy to prevent fetal pain.
Though the posts are likely intended as political hyperbole, they do advocate execution based on political disagreement. Personally, I find such rhetoric morally reprehensible. But no matter how backwards such thinking may be, neither speaker actually threatened the life of another.
In a free society, such expression is protected speech not subject to investigation. While the public may condemn it, the force of law may not. Doing so significantly chills opposition speech.
Imagine yourself as the poster Vox above. Your tweets are marked as private. When you post, you feel as though you are speaking freely among friends. One friend, who publicly advocates death for “Bush & Cheney,” asks you “what other politician needs to be taught a good lesson an (sic) eliminated?” Because you are upset about public policy in your state, you answer your friend’s question with a joke referencing the governor and the state method of execution. Several days later you receive this:
How would this affect your future posts? If you wish to avoid legal troubles, will you not be strongly discouraged from expressing opposition, even in private conversation?
Though the Texas Department of Public Safety cancelled its investigation after the initial report, the issue remains. The internet has made it too easy for government to pursue thought crimes; helping to silence dissent. Their best technique is the misconstruing of expression as a threat. The Obama administration has become a master at this, sending the Secret Service to quash numerous critics, even Ted Nugent.
If you ever find yourself in such a situation, just remember that though America may be changing from a free society, unlike despotic states, we have a foundation in freedom; in this case, reflected in the First Amendment right of free expression.