This story is old news in some ways, but I only heard about it a couple of days ago. There are a couple of young men age 18/19 years old who in interactions in online games and Facebook, after being antagonized by other people, made unfortunate comments about shooting up a school. In reading various articles about this topic it definitely seems to me that neither of these young men meant the comments seriously, but now both of them are facing a potential of 10 years in jail and having a felony conviction on their records. You can find more information about these specific stories on the Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Opposing Views.
The thing that these two stories really bring to light is the idea of freedom of speech online. We are constantly told that we need to stand up for our right to freedom of speech. That we should be able to say almost anything we want as long as it is not causing true harm. The reason that shouting fire in a crowded theatre – when there is not a fire – is illegal is because the corresponding stampede could cause actual harm to people unnecessarily. At the same time if people are making threats and we just ignore them then what does that mean when things actually happen? It is such a complicated balance, but I definitely do not feel that the end – making schools safe – justifies the means – jailing a couple of just-turned adults.
Paranoia Overriding Common Sense
The United States has a terrible history of shootings at schools, from colleges, to elementary schools. There are way too many examples of terrible, terrible shootings and each time another one occurs the country as a whole becomes more and more worried about it happening again. Now it is not to say that we should not be concerned, but I think the paranoia starts to override common sense. (Another example of this might be considered the whole TSA situation at the airport.) The idea being that we are so worried about what might happen all we are focused on is stopping the acts and we get tunnel vision.
The big problem that I can see with the two stories that I specifically pointed out is that we are taking someone who is 18/19 and putting them in jail for 10 years. What happens when they get out of jail? They now have a felony conviction on their record which means the chance of them getting a job is slim to nil, so how are you actually helping the situation? I just really feel like you are creating a higher likelihood that these kids (I know they are legally adults, but a switch does not turn on when you are 18 that makes you an adult) will become criminals. I feel like we are so worried about the possibility of the violence, especially when we are jailing kids for just mentioning shooting up a school, that we are not thinking of the consequences of punishing someone for a misplaced comment.
It just makes me think more and more of Minority Report. If we could see that there is a 67% chance that someone is going to commit a crime would we start arresting them before they committed it? I think the current trend leans in that direction. We say that we won’t let it get that far, but if we let things degrade little by little then who knows? I think there has been a trend lately to allow our fears to overcome our freedoms.
Video Game Culture
So the other part of this that I think is important to talk about is the escalation that happens with video game trash talk. Both of the stories come from someone dealing with trash talking either in a video game or discussion of a video game. The really interesting thing about the situation is that it seems that the comments were taken out of context. The only information that we have is what the news provides (which is sadly lacking), which seems to indicate that both comments were part of a larger conversation. One guys was being called crazy, and the other guy was being told he should kill himself. The whole situation seems ridiculous about what the other people were saying and so the guys made even more ridiculous comments back and because they mentioned the shooting schools they got in trouble.
There is a whole level of trash talk online which is violent and horrific and it just seems subjective that these two are the ones who got in trouble. There are so many comments that if you take out of the context of where they were said they would be absolutely horrible. Context is so important, especially when considering sending someone to jail. Now I do think that video games themselves are not to blame, but that we need to continue the discussion of how people trash talk in video games. If we continue the discussion about the problems with trash talk in video games we might help avoid these types of situations.
So, I do not have a particular solution to the problem because we do need to balance protecting the public with freedom of speech. I think if someone makes a statement and they can legitimately think that the person might commit the crime I think it is okay to get a search warrant, bring them in for questioning, and determine whether the person is actually a threat. If evidence is found that they really are a threat then charge them with the crime, they have the guns or whatever is required to commit the crime meaning that their statement is backed by other evidence.
Now I don’t know if I think the person making the comment should get off with no punishment, but I am thinking more along the lines of mandatory counseling and community service. I know that technically age cannot be considered, but someone does not suddenly know everything when they turn 18/19 (no matter how much they might think they do). Also, we do need to learn not to feed the trolls (which seems to be part of the problem that happened), but it can be difficult to not defend yourself and sometimes we try and make points through sarcasm. We try and be over the top in our reaction to show the opposite and the problem is that with all of the situations that have happened it is hard to think of things that are that over the top.
Basically this is a tragic situation and a really sensitive topic, but we cannot let our fears overpower our rights and freedoms.
I first heard about this story from the Philip DeFranco show on YouTube the story is at 3:05 and I am amazed that this has not been talked about more.