Watch Out, Internet Trolls. In Britain, You Could Get Up to Two Years in Jail.
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No one likes an online troll --a person who uses social media primarily to throw shade, make threats and start fights. And it looks like legislators in the United Kingdom will be cracking down even harder on the banes of the Internet.
Lawmakers in the UK are debating whether or not to start handing down harsher sentences to individuals who are convicted of Internet "trolling." If passed, jail sentence could increase from six months to up to two years.
The change in the law would be an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill that’s working its way through Parliament, and is slated to be debated in the House of Lords this week, the BBC reports. Additionally, the amendment would provide law enforcement with extra time to gather evidence to successfully make a conviction.
"These Internet trolls are cowards who are poisoning our national life," UK Justice Secretary Chris Grayling told The Daily Mail. "No one would permit such venom in person, so there should be no place for it on social media. That is why we are determined to quadruple the current six-month sentence."
In the UK, it is illegal to send someone sexually offensive, verbally abusive or threatening material online. For example, earlier this fall Peter Nunn, a resident of Bristol, was sentenced to 18 weeks in jail after he tweeted and retweeted a string of rape threats at a female member of Parliament.
It’s a completely different story in the U.S. Here, the bar for convicting someone for threatening messages conveyed over social media is significantly higher namely because, unlike in the UK, freedom of speech is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment.
Of course, the First Amendment doesn't protect all speech -- as The Washington Post notes, making what the court calls "true threats" over social media is a prosecutable offense. In the U.S., it isn't enough for the threat to be just nasty and offensive; it must also be specific, cause harm to the victim and, some courts have ruled, intend to cause harm (i.e. not simply meant as artistic hyperbole, fantasy or a joke).
Remember the Cannibal Cop, the former New York City police convicted by a Manhattan federal court on charges of elaborately planning to kill and cook his wife? While the details he shared on online message boards were extremely specific, the conviction was overturned because the judge wasn't convinced he actually ever intended to go through with any of it. Instead, he ruled, the comments were likely "fantasy role-play." Similarly, in December the Supreme Court is slated rule on whether or not violent threats conveyed via rap-style lyrics posted on Facebook is protected by the First Amendment.
For better or for worse, the First Amendment is incredibly powerful in this country. If the Cannibal Cop can walk free, it's unlikely we'll start jailing commonplace Internet trolls anytime soon.