When does hate speech shade over into threats? Hate speech would be: “I hate X, and we would all be better off if X were dead.” A threat would be: “I hate you, and I plan to kill you.” Hate speech is offensive, can be frightening, and, on college campuses especially, is highly regulated. Credible death threats we punish as a crime.
Another comparison is between hate speech and graffiti. We used to see graffiti in certain spaces that seemed to be reserved for short, 140-character posts, such as public toilets and unmoderated brick walls. Now we see graffiti on Twitter, an unmoderated digital space reserved for short posts and all manner of speech, ugly and otherwise. When does Twitter-like, online graffiti shade into hate speech, and from there into threats?
These thoughts come to mind due to offensive speech against Curt Schilling’s daughter last week. That instance also raises the subject to rape threats rather than death threats. I would say the two are similar in kind.
Here is a Twitlonger post related to the Schilling case:
Rape has been in the news a lot, campus sexual assaults in particular. A little while back, I read how the people who manage Twitter acknowledge they don’t have a good way to stop threats of rape against celebrities, who use Twitter as a direct channel to communicate with their fans. If you step out onto the Twitter stage as a celebrity, you accept the good with the bad.
I thought, “Wow, that’s kind of extreme, threatening people with rape in a public forum like that. Why would someone do that? Do they want to appear especially boorish, or do they intend threats like that to make the target especially afraid of them?” Rape threats against celebrities on Twitter then went the way of so much other internet news: the stream of information you process doesn’t stop for anything.
Then you read about a case closer to home. Curt Schilling tweeted congratulations to his daughter for getting into Salve Regina college, where she’ll pitch for their softball team (https://38pitches.files.wordpress.com/2015/02/tweet-1.jpg). The ugliness of what followed is, as Curt Schilling writes in a follow-up post, just beyond belief.
I was going to write more comments on this matter, but Curt Schilling says enough for now in his post at 38 Pitches: https://38pitches.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/the-world-we-live-in-man-has-it-changed/. The people who attacked Schilling’s daughter have no problem saying these things from a _public_ Twitter account. They _want_ people to know who they are! That is a riddle.
My only qualification in praising Schilling’s response is that he charges an entire _generation_ with this behavior, or implies that this behavior is characteristic of an entire generation. I’d say the Tweeters are a pretty small minority of their age cohort, and that most men in college right now are gentleman. Twitter gives the idiots who speak this way in public a big megaphone. Maybe I merely want to be optimistic, but I hope the gentlemen outnumber the idiots manyfold.
One more note: congratulations to the Schilling family!
To close, here’s a reminder about matters of free speech and offensive speech. We don’t generally work these matters out in the courtroom. We work them out among ourselves.