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Can I Get Arrested for Criticizing Cops on Social Media?

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 25, 2016 11:59 AM

In the face of recent police shootings, almost everyone has an opinion. And while the First Amendment protects your right to say most things, even critiques of the police, freedom of speech does have its limits.

Those limits have been tested by some social media posts -- and the subsequent arrest of posters -- following the sniper attack that targeted police in Dallas. So what can you say about the cops on social media before they start knocking on your front door?

Online Oratory

The Intercept recently noted the trend starting with four men in Detroit who were arrested for making threats on social media. The publication also found similar arrests in Connecticut, Illinois, and New Jersey. A general sampling gives you the tone of the posts, which also coincided with the deadly police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile:

  • "All lives can't matter until black lives matter. Kill all white cops."
  • "He [Micah Johnson, the man who shot 14 police officers in Dallas, killing five] inspired me to do the exact same thing."
  • "It's time to wage­ war and shoot the police first."
  • "This [Dallas shooting] needs to happen more often."
  • "I have no problem shooting a cop for simple traffic stop cuz [sic] they'd have no problem doing it to me."

While the four men arrested in Detroit were never formally charged, others have been charged with inciting injury to persons or property, disorderly conduct, and public intimidation.

Fine Blue Line

The First Amendment allows a lot of anti-police bombast: you can insult a cop; you can flip them off; you can yell and swear at them; and you can even smear bacon on a police station, if you're so inclined. (NOTE: We are not advocating this kind of behavior -- we only note that some who've been arrested for these actions have had charges dropped or convictions overturned.)

What the freedom of speech does not permit are threats and statements likely to invoke violence. And there is no protection for saying them online as opposed to in public, so threats on social media are just like threats in real life. The distinction between "That cop should go to jail" and "That cop should be shot" may seem inconsequential, but to those wearing the uniform, it isn't. And if you intend a social media post to be threatening or to encourage others to violence against the police, you can expect those same uniforms to show up with handcuffs.

It can be hard to tone down the rhetoric in heated political times, especially in the face of apparently unjustified killings and especially on a medium that seems to lack real-life repercussions. But think twice before you fire off that social media missive. Or, better yet, consult an attorney who can tell you whether you're wading into illegal waters.

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