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Twitter Threats Can Lead to Restraining Orders

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By Jason Beahm on November 01, 2010 7:17 AM

In what could be a first, a tweet has led to a restraining order. Steve Russell, an Arizona State University student tweeted that he would "not hesitate to punch Connerly in the face if I saw him ... Just sayin." The Connerly is Republican Ward Connerly, who is considered the man behind Arizona's Proposition 107, which outlaws race and gender-based preferences, or affirmative action, in hiring and university admissions.

Russell may have thought that the alleged Twitter threat was all in good fun, but Connerly took a different view. After hearing of the post, Connerly filed for a restraining order and a Maricopa County judge granted it, requiring that Russell stay 100 feet away from Connerly, the Arizona Republic reports.

Russell, 22 and Connerly, 70, are on opposing sides of the affirmative action issue. Russell is part of a coalition of Arizonans who oppose Proposition 107. Robyn Nebrich, the executive director for the Arizona Students' Association, apologized on Russell's behalf, saying that he made a bad joke but meant no harm. "It wasn't really meant as a threat. He didn't realize the implications of what he was saying. Steve really regrets doing it. He is definitely learning from the experience," she said.

Connerly saw it differently: "I can't afford not to take these things seriously," he said.

It's an interesting case because the alleged Twitter threat is slightly vague and it's hard to say whether Russell was serious. Nevertheless, the judge felt it was actionable enough to issue the restraining order. It seems that the fact that it came by way of a tweet had no bearing on the decision. It does serve as an interesting example of the fine line between hyperbole and a threat. The safe route is to avoid not only direct threats, but also statements that could have the appearance of being a threat. But of course, not everyone will choose the safe route.

I can only wonder whether the court have issued a restraining order if Russell said any of the following?

  • I sure would like to punch Connerly in the face
  • Connerly deserves to be punched in the face
  • Connerly has a punch to the face waiting with his name on it
  • Can someone punch Connerly in the face?

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