As folks in France and the U.K. face criminal charges for posting subjectively "hateful" content to Twitter, another disturbing case of social-media censorship hits a little closer to home. A Brooklyn teenager has been charged for posting "threatening" emoji images to Facebook.
The boy, 17-year-old Osiris Aristy, posted a January 15 status update that said "Nigga run up on me, he gunna get blown down," followed by a police officer emoji and three guns. Police officers interpreted this as a credible threat.
Cops were dispatched to Aristy's house, which they searched, finding marijuana and a firearm. In addition to charges for making "terroristic threats" and "aggravated harassment," Aristy was also charged with drug and weapon possession. He was arraigned last week, with bail set at $150,000.
With perhaps the exception of Aristy's "threat," everything about this story is alarming. Are New York City police just randomly monitoring Facebook, looking for reasons to arrest people? Or did they already have their eye on Aristy—who frequently posts to Facebook about drugs—and simply use his status update as an excuse to raid his house? Either way, it doesn't look good. Nor does the NYPD's attempt to circumvent the First Amendment by distorting the meanings of "true threat" and "harassment."
Had Aristy mentioned any particular officer(s), written directly to them, or stated some sort of plan to carry out the violence, this might be a different story. But his post wasn't about or directed at anyone. It didn't mention any specifics. There's absolutely no way that rises to the level of criminal harassment. And "it's a little hard to believe he has a subjective intent to kill someone when he puts these emojis together," as lawyer Leon Friedman said to CBS New York.
The U.S. Supreme Court is currently considering the limits of free speech on Facebook. That case is a little more difficult, involving detailed, graphic accounts of intended violence against a particular individual. Aristy's post wasn't even a blanket wish to harm police officers, only ones that "run up on" him. In the wake of so much recent, high-profile police violence, it could be interpreted as an assertion that Aristy would use self-defense if he felt threatened on the street by police.
But there seems to be growing American enthusiasm for the idea that all but the blandest of speech should be criminalized. The fairly nauseating CBS account of Aristy's case opens with the assertion that "you can't just post anything you want on Facebook" and ends with Aristy's neighbor agreeing that "at the end of the day, you've got to watch what you say." Surveillance-state resignation for the win!
The criminal complaint against Aristy stated, in part, that "the defendant has caused … New York City police officers to fear for their safety, for public safety, and to suffer alarm and annoyance." Alarm and annoyance! Can't have that! Inspector Maximo Tolentino told DNAinfo: "You make a threat on the internet, we're going to be watching. We are going to attempt to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law."