First Amendment

If Spreading Fake News on Facebook Is a Crime in Ohio, They Will Need More Jails

A Barberton judge just sentenced a woman to jail, house arrest, and a year without social media for repeating a rumor about a pellet gun at school.

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Social media are teeming with people who like to publicly worry about imaginary risks. That's not a good thing. But is it a crime? According to an Ohio jury and judge, it is, at least when someone's worries are echoed by others, resulting in irritating phone calls and emails to government officials.

Last week Barberton Municipal Judge David Fish sentenced Erin Croghan to three days in jail, a month of house arrest, and a year without social media for "inducing panic" by using Facebook to repeat an unfounded rumor about a pellet gun found at a local school. It could have been worse. Inducing panic is a first-degree misdemeanor in Ohio, meaning it is punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail. Then again, some might question whether saying dumb stuff on Facebook should be a crime at all, given that the First Amendment is supposed to protect even ill-informed and misleading commentary.

Croghan's journey to jail began on November 2, 2017, when she was at her daughter's school bus stop and heard that another student had seen a gun at school the day before. Croghan asked her daughter's teacher at Coventry Elementary School about the rumor and eventually heard from Coventry Local Schools Superintendent Lisa Blough, who said kids riding a bus had seen a middle school student with a pellet gun in his front yard as they passed by his house. Blough assured Croghan that no gun had been found at any of the schools she oversees.

Croghan evidently did not believe Blough, because she revived the rumor several months later, following the February 14 mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida. "A student brought a gun to school a few months ago," she claimed on the "Portage Lakes Rocks!" Facebook page. (Portage Lakes is a town south of Akron that apparently aspires to be as cool as Cleveland.) Croghan said the weapon was a pellet gun but "still could've caused harm," adding that she was "just curious if parents were made aware of this past incident."

Croghan's post prompted other parents to contact Tina Marie Norris, the Coventry Middle School principal. At Croghan's trial, the Akron Beacon Journal reports, Norris testified that "the assistant principal was off the day after Croghan's post," so Norris "spent her entire day fielding phone calls and emails from concerned parents." She said parents were "significantly worried." Norris responded on Facebook at the time, saying no guns had been found at any Coventry schools. "This type of post is why social media is dangerous," she wrote.

Croghan refused to back down. Instead she speculated that Norris and other school officials were lying about the purported incident so as not to endanger voter approval of funding for the school district. "The posts kept getting more outrageous and, frankly, very attacking," Norris testified.

It's not clear whether Croghan knowingly spread fake news or was just confused and stubborn. "It simply was a false report that Erin Croghan put out there for attention-seeking behavior," Assistant Barberton Prosecutor Michelle Banbury said during her opening statement. "I wish I could explain why she did what she did. I don't have a motive."

To convict Croghan, Banbury was supposed to prove that she knew the pellet gun rumor was false, and there seems to be reasonable doubt on that point. It also seems like a stretch to claim that annoying Norris qualifies as "serious public inconvenience or alarm," another element of the crime that Croghan supposedly committed.

"You heard there was no robocall, no evacuation, no lockdown," Croghan's lawyer, Jeff Laybourne, told the jury. "If it had been 'serious,' those things would have occurred." He said the "serious public inconvenience or alarm" alleged by the prosecution amounted to "phone calls from parents to administrators who are paid by taxpayers as part of their job to answer phone calls."

Laybourne also noted the First Amendment implications of the case. "They have criminalized freedom of speech on Facebook," he said, arguing that convicting Croghan could have a "chilling effect" on "concerned parents and their ability to ask questions."

This precedent might make people think twice before passing along unsubstantiated rumors, but it also could deter people from questioning the government's position on any number of issues where the facts are unclear. Could strongly worded Facebook posts about a controversial police shooting be construed as "inducing panic" by convincing young black men that cops pose a deadly danger to them? What about tweets alleging that the government's preparations for an impending natural disaster are woefully inadequate?

Croghan's sentence is particularly troubling because it includes a prior restraint on her speech, banning her from social media during her year of probation. Last year the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a North Carolina law banning registered sex offenders from social media was inconsistent with the First Amendment. This case involves a probation condition rather than a statute, and the ban lasts a year rather than decades. Then again, Croghan's crime pales in comparison to those of many people covered by the North Carolina law.

Croghan, who is appealing her conviction, asked Judge Fish to at least let her use Facebook to coordinate her volunteer work for a local program that provides food to needy families. He said she would have to get someone else to fill that role or find another method of identifying recipients.

The Columbus Dispatch reports that Fish "said Croghan is the 'ultimate contradiction' because she does so much good in the community but also made these erroneous posts." Alluding to the "counseling" that Croghan is undergoing, the judge told her, "I think you're going to get there. You're a good person, Erin."

Fish nevertheless thought Croghan's reckless disregard for the truth justified a jail sentence and one year of enforced silence on social media. Myriad good but misguided people commit similar crimes every day. "If we're going to charge every person who puts misinformation on Facebook," Laybourne told the jury, "this place will be inundated."

[Thanks to Braden McConnell for the tip.]

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  1. So, will professional reporters be jailed for reporting something that ultimately turns out to be not true? Doubt it and suspect this law will only be used to punish us little people.

    1. Or politicians and journolists who repeat fake news. They are arguably far worse than moms on FaceBook, since they buy ink by the barrel, or at least commandeer it.

      1. Little people or not, if you do anything that risks damaging a reputation (particularly an academic reputation, and especially the reputation of a faculty member here at NYU) there is a good chance you will be serving time in one of our nation’s jails. As one of the federal judges reviewing the state court decisions in of America’s leading criminal “satire” case pointed out, disseminating unwanted email “parodies” is like “shooting a gun out there, in the air.” See the documentation at:

        https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/

        1. P.s. see also:

          https://tinyurl.com/nytimes-item

          As the article demonstrates, anyone who sends out fake FB material, especially dealing with political or academic matters, clearly risks jail.

    2. Of course they will – if they’re publishing rumors that attack the wrong people.

      As long as they publish unsubstantiated material about the current out-group they’ll be fine. It’ll be used to further cement the government’s control over media.

    3. The conviction is clearly unconstitutional and, I believe, the statute itself is unconstitutionally overbroad. Hopefully she can find competent pro bono appellate representation. I’d certainly volunteer in a minute we’re I admitted in Ohio.

  2. Now that’s way too far! I want accountability for internet censorship and official fake news on so called news networks, but an unknowing citizen or someone just gossiping on social media is nothing! Who knows what we spread that may not have all the facts? Jail time or probation is going way too far into draconian tyranny!
    https://aladyofreason.wordpress.com/

  3. This woman does not need to be punished for her derangement…She needs to be institutionalized. All of this trouble, for her and the public officials, whether it be the school or justice system, over a fucking pellet gun. Get a fucking clue, woman.

    1. Who says it was just a pellet gun?

      Remember how this supposedly started: kids on a school bus saw someone in a front yard with a pellet gun.

      How did the kids know it was a pellet gun?

      How did the principle and/or other authorities know it was a pellet gun?

      Seriously. Did the authorities go track down this front yard and the brandisher? It would have been at least half an hour before they could figure out what front yard, and then how could they confirm it by finding the brandisher? Then they’d have to verify that he was brandishing a gun, what gun it was, and so on.

      I really doubt they could do any of that.

      1. Yeah; maybe the pellets were .357 and weighed 158 grains?

      2. Why should they do any of that? Guns have become some sort of magical totem. Weird.

    2. YOU ARE ONE OF THE REASONS THIS COUNTRY IS SCREWED……
      HOPE YOU GET A TASTE OF THE CHIT YOUR SHOVELIN…..

  4. …Fish “said Croghan is the ‘ultimate contradiction’ because she does so much good in the community but also made these erroneous posts.”

    Objective good and objective bad. Truly a Solomon-like wisdom.

    1. More Alzheimer’s than Solomon.

  5. Banning people from social media is actually a proven cause of violence. No that is not an excuse. But it’s also why this country protects free speech – to reduce pretexts for violence that occurred all too frequently in Europe. Yes people can be irresponsible online, but the great thing about social media is that anyone can respond from around the world to correct the record. This is also why I don’t blame Facebook for the Myanmar Muslim massacres. Because really it’s up to us, the users, to confront it. Just censoring it won’t help, because it becomes an escalating cat-and-mouse game. (Also getting banned from social media is my worst nightmare. This was a painful story to read. Though now I think I could make do if it ever came to that.)

    1. “Banning people from social media is actually a proven cause of violence. ”

      That sounds vaguely like you, a person who has been repeatedly banned, making a veiled threat.

      1. I would never resort to violence. I am a ‘turn the other cheek’ kind of guy. I would never make a threat or veiled threat either. However I think it’s important to understand why our country was founded, which may require exposing some uncomfortable dynamics of human nature.

  6. If only she’d lied about her military record she’d have been protected by the 1st Amendment.

  7. Erin Croghan put out there for attention-seeking behavior

    If “attention-seeking behavior” is a crime in Ohio, they will need more women’s prisons.

  8. I mean if she went on and on about it it may rise to the level of a crime. You can’t falsely shout fire you know.

  9. Barberton. That explains it.

    If you find yourself in Barberton you took a wrong turn somewhere.

    ” (Portage Lakes is a town south of Akron that apparently aspires to be as cool as Cleveland.) ”

    Funniest line I read all day. ^

  10. “If we’re going to charge every person who puts misinformation on Facebook,” Laybourne told the jury, “this place will be inundated.”

    Uh-oh, that sounds like a panic-inducing statement. We should all probably call Barberton Municipal Judge David Fish and check to see if we’re all indeed facing charges for putting misinformation on Facebook.

  11. not clear whether Croghan knowingly spread fake news or was just confused and stubborn

    I honestly think it doesn’t matter here. We can have a conversation about whether or not ‘spreading fake news’ *should be illegal* (I lean on the side of ‘it innoculates people and teaches them how to sort falsehood from truth) but its not illegal – and what she did CLEARLY did not cause a ‘panic’ by any definition of the work in English. Any version of English.

    1. “I honestly think it doesn’t matter here. We can have a conversation about whether or not ‘spreading fake news’ *should be illegal*”

      We could and it shoudn’t.

      1. It isn’t. Spreading fake news is not illegal. Saying anything is not illegal. I mean:

        Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech

        is not that fucking difficult, people!

        1. Yep, it isn’t, this is a terrible decision and needs to be appealed.

        2. I’m going to kill you.

  12. What we need in this country is common sense panic control.
    People should have to get a permit before being allowed to post on social media. The local sheriff, who would know the citizens well could be allowed to issue the permits, based on proof of taking some kind of training course about the kinds of things that spread panic at stuff. To allow the sheriff to handle this workload, the permits could be self funded by a fee of a couple of hundred dollars. That way we can be sure people are posting under their real names, because the sheriff can make sure everyone sets up their social media at the sheriff office, and he checks their identity.
    Yeah, that’s the ticket. And if someone says bad things, their permit can be revoked. A full background check would be a good idea, to be sure no bad guys get a social account, you know, Russians or somebody.
    Their could be a second classification for high volume posting, with a commensurate additional training and fee requirement.

  13. I’m kinda ok with this because she was trying to interfere with someone’s civil rights in some way. But it would be nice if the deranged busy bodies who call 911 that ultimately leads to the murder of an innocent man would also go to jail.

  14. More jails?
    A great idea!
    Once the masses are incarcerated, then they will appreciate the socialist slavery our ruling elitists offer them more readily.
    No one appreciates slavery until they’re locked up in one of our wonderful gulags for a few years.

  15. >>>resulting in irritating phone calls and emails to government officials

    government officials were put on this planet to irritate via phone and email.

  16. Judge Fish is just another foolish judge, doing his best to discredit the legal system. Judicial egos know no limits.

    At least his foolishness is public and will help expose the misuse of criminal law in a vain effort to control human behavior. Now we just need more jurors to say no to such stupid cases.

  17. If they would jail all the folks saying Trump has had sex with his daughter, it might be worth it.

  18. We used to play army in the woods with pellet/BB guns. Nobody gave a shit.

    1. seconded.

  19. Can’t see where she posted ‘misinformation’ at all.

    1. Can’t see where she posted ‘misinformation’ at all.

      “kids riding a bus had seen a middle school student with a pellet gun in his front yard as they passed by his house”

      vs.:

      “A student brought a gun to school a few months ago,” she claimed on the “Portage Lakes Rocks!” Facebook page.

      1. But “kids riding a bus had seen a middle school student with a pellet gun in his front yard as they passed by his house” is the school’s story.

        There’s zero proof that it’s any more or less correct than hers.

        As other’s have pointed out, how did these kids know it was a pellet gun? Why wasn’t THAT kid on a bus?

        The ‘pellet gun’ point actually suggests that she’s the one telling the truth. Because you’d have to have the gun to know it was a pellet gun.

  20. You know what we WON’T see from this?

    Other histrionic gun grabbers being jailed for spreading misinformation. Shame.

  21. If you want to spread rumors tell your sister-in-law and swear her to secrecy. Far more efficient than this Facebook thing.

  22. United Soviet States of America

  23. So this judge? What’s the story? Doesn’t understand the clear meaning of the Constitution that he swore to uphold? Or something less, to be delicate, less benign?

  24. So we are now jailing people just for being stupid? Judge is a joke.

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