What Constitutes a True Threat?

threatening gesture
Looking For A Fight

My social media feed is filled with partisan bickering and that is pretty much par for the course. Recently I have observed a debate about a couple of letters to the editor published by my local paper, the Pueblo Chieftain. I’ll refer to the two letter writers as Citizen A and Citizen B to protect their identity, and to try to provide some space between the debate over their statements and the debate over this particular political disagreement.

Citizen A wrote a letter that was published on June 30th in which he took a stand on a highly contentious issue that is currently in the news. Here is an excerpt taken out of context (in order to minimize bias depending on your stand on the issue). “Silence is more than complicity. Silence is violence. The coming war must be fought by all means necessary, by the pen and by the sword.”

In response, Citizen B wrote a letter in which he quoted the last line of the above quote and then added this: “This guy is the kind of cancer who there needs to be a cure for. I have a cure, but it is illegal.”

While the First Amendment protects citizens’ rights, including the right to free speech or free expression, there are well-known exceptions to that protection. For example one cannot claim protection for speech that is defamatory, violates copyright, or incites violence. It is why you’ll likely be arrested if you talk about having a bomb while you’re in an airport (or other public spaces). Which brings us back to the discussion playing out on my Facebook page. Do either of these letters to the editor cross that line? Is either one a “true threat”? Are either/both of them protected speech, or does one or the other fall outside of the protection of the First Amendment and potentially place the “speaker” in legal jeopardy?

The statement by Citizen A is a vague call to violent action but is not directed at anyone specifically. The statement by Citizen B addresses a specific individual, but recognizes the legal constraint imposed on the implied action. One does not need to read between the lines to come to the conclusion that the “illegal” cure is physical harm directed at Citizen A.

Legal precedent is does not provide a clear answer to these issues. Whether one applies the “incitement to imminent lawless action” standard or considers whether the speech constitutes a  “true threat” as interpreted by a “reasonable person,” much remains unsettled.

Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in a response to a pair of cross-burning cases collectively known as Virginia v. Black (2003), upheld the Virginia law making it illegal to intimidate others by burning a cross. Such actions constituted a “true threat” and could be deemed illegal. According to her opinion,

‘True threats’ encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals. The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat. Rather, a prohibition on true threats protect[s] individuals from the fear of violence and from the disruption that fear engenders, in addition to protecting people from the possibility that the threatened violence will occur.

The jury is still out, but some on Facebook have reached their conclusions. In fact, some reached their conclusions largely on the basis of the original political debate…long before the threatening language was introduced. And that, sadly, is the real tragedy on display.

Profanity and Politics

You may have missed the 72nd Annual Tony Awards broadcast last week…actually, based on ratings you almost certainly missed it…but even so you may have heard that movie star Robert De Niro dropped the f-bomb in a political statement directed at President Trump. Networks censors were ready and bleeped the offending word, as required by the FCC, but viewers at home still got the message.

While LA and New York are known for liberal politics, it still came as a bit of a surprise when De Niro’s condemnation of President Trump was followed by a standing ovation. The famous Michelle Obama dictum, “when they go low, we go high” was nowhere to be seen.

This is not the first time that awards programs have drawn attention for outrageous or profane statements. U2’s Bono, Cher, Nichole Richie, and others have uttered “fleeting expletives” on awards shows in the past.

Profane political speech comes with a special challenge . According to Frank Bruni, opinion writer for the New York Times,

When you answer name-calling with name-calling and tantrums with tantrums, you’re not resisting him. You’re mirroring him. You’re not diminishing him. You’re demeaning yourselves.

The stunt by De Niro reminds me of a similar statement made by the editorial staff of the CSU student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, back in 2007. After publishing a very brief editorial very similar in tone to De Niro’s statement, reactions from the community and alumni led to the student newspaper being moved off-campus where it is now published by the independent 501(c)3 non-profit Rocky Mountain Student Media Corporation.

The paper’s editor-in-chief J. David McSwane said in response to the controversy, “While the editorial board feels strongly with regard to first amendment issues, we have found the unintended consequences of such a bold statement to be extremely disheartening.”

Many would agree that the tone of political debate has indeed become “extremely disheartening” on many levels.

First Person [School] Shooter Videogames

First person shooter (FPS)  video games have been around for quite a few years. Even if you haven’t played them, you’ve probably heard about Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake, Call of Duty, and Halo. While the idea of putting a virtual gun in the hands of young, impressionable gamers creates angst for parents and other adults, the fact that little Johnny is killing Nazis, monsters or aliens softens some of the objections.

FPS games played in more natural settings, e.g. inner cities, elevated concerns once again and games like GTA: San Andreas led to protests and calls for greater restrictions on content and labeling.

But it took a Colorado resident who created a video game based on the Columbine High School shooting to really fire things up. Danny Ladonne made Super Columbine Massacre RPG in 2005 and a documentary about his experience a few years later.

In 2011 another video game based on Columbine was released as a modification for Half-Life 2 and received equally harsh criticism. School Shooter: North American Tour 2012 was cited in the Supreme Court ruling Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. The 7-2 opinion established protection for video games under the First Amendment.

Most recently, a new release slated for June 6 is renewing the controversy around FPS video games in school settings. Active Shooter is designed to give players the option of the role of S.W.A.T. team or shooter. According to a news report,

Steam said in a statement on its site that the game does not promote any sort of violence, especially any sort of a mass shooting, referring back to the phrase dynamic SWAT simulator.

However, in light of recent and strong criticism the game maker is considering removing the option to take the role as shooter.

If you believe that FPS games set in high schools is a bad idea, sign the petition at Change.org

Spotify’s Values

Spotify provides a streaming music service to millions of users, and like any media platform is legally entitled to pick and choose which artists and content to carry and feature. In what is very likely a response to the #TimesUp and #MuteRKelly movements, Spotify’s recent decision has become the subject of debate by both artists and listeners.

According to Billboard magazine’s website,

As part of the new policy, Spotify also de-playlisted works by R. Kelly, who has faced a slew of sexual abuse allegations he denies but who “never has been convicted of a crime, nor does he have any pending criminal charges against him,” Kelly’s team said in a statement Thursday, noting that the “lyrics he writes express love and desire” while Spotify “promotes numerous other artists who are convicted felons, others who have been arrested on charges of domestic violence and artists who sing lyrics that are violent and anti-women in nature.”

To be clear, I’m not a fan of R. Kelly, or XXXTentacion, but this new policy by Spotify raises some important questions about how sanctions are applied to artists/performers who have been accused of bad behavior. In the past it was often a criminal conviction that was the tipping point that led to censure. But in the absence of a criminal charge, on what basis is Spotify making this decision? And will this move by Spotify be followed by similar action by Apple Music, RCA, and Ticketmaster: other entities that have a stake in Kelly’s music? And what about other artists that have been accused of mis-behavior?

Spotify is trying to make clear their decision-making process and published a webpage for artists that details what kinds of private behavior may lead to censure by the company. According to Spotify,

We don’t censor content because of an artist’s or creator’s behavior, but we want our editorial decisions – what we choose to program – to reflect our values. When an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.

This problem is not limited to Spotify and we can expect to see similar responses from social media sites, especially content-communities such as YouTube and Reddit, when cultural norms are breached and offended individuals/groups bring complaints.

 

 

 

Net Neutrality Ain’t Dead Yet, But It’s On Life Support

If you’ve been paying attention to the news the past couple of days you may have heard that the US Senate narrowly (52-47) voted to reverse the FCC repeal of net neutrality rules. But don’t pop the cork just yet. For the Senate vote to mean anything will require that the House follows suite, and that the ensuing legislation makes it past the veto pen of President Trump. Neither of those are likely to happen.

If you haven’t been tracking this story all along, FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s net neutrality repeal is scheduled to take effect on June 11, unless Congress acts to overturn the FCC’s decision. So while you will hear plenty about Net Neutrality in the coming weeks, most of the political noise will be posturing to drum up support for the fall midterm elections. If you like Net Neutrality (the policy put in place in early 2015 by the Obama administration) and want it to stay, you will be encouraged to vote for Democratic candidates for congress. And if you think that Net Neutrality is unnecessary government regulation of the telecommunications industry, you will be encouraged to vote for Republican candidates.

If you’ve read news headlines that make it appear that the Senate vote is going to stop the repeal of Net Neutrality, you are a victim of having just a portion of the info necessary to be an informed citizen. And sometimes have a little information is as bad as having none.

Student Newspapers Struggle to Survive

By most estimates the vast majority of professional journalists got their start working on a high school or college newspaper. These incubators of journalism are essential to the future of a profession that is foundational to our democracy. But high school and college newspapers are struggling to survive in a world where production and distribution costs continue to climb while advertising revenue plummets. This is exactly the same problem faced by newspapers in cities and towns across America.

While we shouldn’t be surprised that market forces are leading to the closing and downsizing of newspapers around the country, we should take a moment to consider whether we need to protect college newspapers from their imminent demise. Are these laboratories necessary to grow the next generation of journalists and if so, how can we ensure their survival? If you’re not convinced, read a few of the essays and editorials here.

At CSU-Pueblo we believe that future journalists are worth every dollar spent CSU-Pueblo Today newspaperto provide them the opportunity to do the work of a journalist while still a student. To that end we support the CSU-Pueblo Today in print, and online, so that students have an opportunity to develop the skills necessary in the workplace. As evidence of our students success we offer the following.

Recently the Society of Professional Journalists announced winners in their Region 9 competition. I’ve listed the winners from CSU-Pueblo below:

  • Best All-Around Non Daily Student Newspaper
    Winner: CSU-Pueblo Today – by Staff of CSU-Pueblo Today, Colorado State University-Pueblo
  • General News Reporting (Small) 1-9,999 Students
    Winner: Harmon empowers those he is leading – by Chianna Schoenthaler, Colorado State University-Pueblo
  • Feature Writing (Small) 1-9,999 Students
    Winner: Making lasting relationships through obsession – by Alexandra Purcell, Colorado State University-Pueblo
  • Sports Writing (Small) 1-9,999 Students
    Winner: Celebrating 10 years with a win – by Chris Graham, Colorado State University-Pueblo
  • Feature Photography (Small) 1-9,999 Students
    Winner: Brues Ale House interior – by Wes Padgett, Colorado State University-Pueblo
    Finalist: Student Veterans of America students – by Jon Doose, Colorado State University-Pueblo
    Finalist: Photographer Kevin Malella – by Madison Hildebrand-Cozzolino, Colorado State University-Pueblo
  • Sports Photography (Small) 1-9,999 Students
    Winner: Celebrating 10 years with a win – by Avery Lewis, Colorado State University-Pueblo

Congratulations to the staff (and faculty advisors) of the CSU-Pueblo Today for their hard work and dedication. But we’re going to continue to need the support of the University, our alumni, and the community if we’re going to continue to provide these opportunities. SPJ has been at the forefront of advocating for student journalists and the future of the profession. This Wednesday is #SaveStudentNewsrooms day and an opportunity for you to support student journalists.

Pulitzer for Kendrick

The Onion, satirical website

This is an actual screen shot from The Onion website. While the headline may be outrageous, it’s actually true. Not until you get to the two quotes does The Onion’s trademark satire kick in.

But seriously, who would have thought that the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 2018 would go to a rapper from Compton. According to National Public Radio, “It’s the first time in the prize’s history that it has been given to an artist outside of the classical or jazz community.” And the song DAMN is, according to The New Yorker, “the first hip-hop composition to be honored since the establishment of the music prize, in 1943.”

Others have noted that this award is further indication that pop culture is finally being recognized instead of stigmatized by the culturally elite crowd. Just as Bob Dylan’s receipt of a Nobel Prize for Literature last year shook up the Nobel crowd, this may be the ultimate affirmation for a music genre that has typically mocked conventional and institutional values. And while this decision by the Pulitzer judges may be political, it is clearly not satirical.

 

 

 

What Happens When You Click Like?

According to Facebook,

“Like” is a way to give positive feedback or to connect with things you care about on Facebook. You can like content that your friends post to give them feedback or like a Page that you want to connect with on Facebook.

Ever wonder what happens when you click the “Like” button on social media? Several things, actually, starting with a little shot of dopamine for the person who made the post. Dopamine is the chemical in the brain that provides a sense of pleasure. When we receive positive feedback from our friends and followers it lights up the reward center in our brain. That part of the reason why social media is so addictive. Sean Parker, founder of Napster and former president of Facebook, admitted as much in this video in which he explains the process as a “social validation feedback loop” that was ripe for exploitation.

For more, check out these segments from 60 Minutes.

Another thing that happens is that the platform, e.g., Facebook, get another data point that they use to build our profile. Every time we like something, we are making a statement about ourselves, and that info is used to define us for future advertisers. Do you “like” Corgis, Starbucks and brightly colored lip gloss? Okay. How about Justin Timberlake, Jennifer Lawrence, and Tammy Duckworth? Check! Each time you “like” something, you give the algorithm a little more information that it can use to fine-tune your profile, making you even more valuable to advertisers.

According to research, as few as 150 “likes” on social media is better at predicting your personality than your parent, and as few as 300 “likes” allows the software to “know” you better than your own spouse.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer to be known for who I am by real people…who I like…and who like me.

Weakened Denver Post Struggles to Survive

The Denver Post, the flagship newspaper of the Centennial State, is suffering crippling layoffs and downsizing at the hands of its hedge-fund manager owners Alden Global Capital. In an editorial posted over the weekend, the Denver Post pleaded for help. “Reduction in quality leads to a reduction of trust.” “It’s time for those Coloradans who care most about their civic future to get involved and see to it that Denver gets the newsroom it deserves.’’

Evidence of the “reduction in quality” that results when editorial positions are eliminated can be found in a glaring mistake that was made in last week’s paper. Announcing the Colorado Rockies 2018 season opener to be played at Coors Field, a half-page photo used was for a ballpark in Philadelphia, PA.

That may feel like an inconsequential error in light of the bigger issues of politics and world affairs, but it does illustrate the loss that Denver, the state of Colorado, and the country are facing as media corporations chase the bottom line while ignoring the communities that they’re supposed to serve.