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'LOL, jk:' When virtual threats lead to jail time

NEED TO KNOW
  • Georgia Southern student Caleb Clemmons was jailed for making 'terroristic threats'
  • His is not the first case where an online post has led to jail time
'LOL, jk:' When virtual threats lead to jail time

Wait... Should you post that on the Internet?

Wait... Should you post that on the Internet?

Editor's Note: "Generation Overshare" is a series about the blurred lines between what we share online and what we keep private. All week, HLN brings you content that examines the impact of putting it all out there, especially for a younger generation that's growing up on social media.

By all accounts, Caleb Clemmons was a promising young student at Georgia Southern University. The 20-year-old psychology major was known for his satirical Tumblr blog posts, in which he used the handle "irenigg" to create a fake personality known as Ryan Lang, a persona he used to level cultural commentary and jokes.

But it isn't Ryan Lang who sat in a Georgia jail for six months. It wasn't irenigg who was arrested for making terroristic threats.

It was Caleb Clemmons.

'Pass this around'

In February, Clemmons took to his highly active Tumblr page and posted the following message:  

"Hello. my name is irenigg and i plan on shooting up georgia southern," he wrote. "Pass this around to see the affect it has. to see if i get arrested."

Unsurprisingly, he did. The post was reported by an anonymous source, and the same day police were knocking on his door. Police say a search of his residence turned up no weapons or plans for an attack. Clemmons was arrested and charged with "making terroristic threats via computer."

The young man's ordeal has earned national attention in the last few weeks. Students and staff at Georgia Southern have vocally supported Clemmons, and his family has begged for his release. His bond was set at $20,000, and his family could not come up with the money for his release, so Clemmons remained in the Bulloch County Jail.

This week, Clemmons pleaded guilty to the charge, and was sentenced to six months in jail and five years probation. However, because he has spent six months in jail already, his time will be credited. He is also banned from entering the four counties in the area's judicial circuit, and he will not be allowed to post on social media during his five-year probation.

'The blood of the innocent'

Hundreds of miles away, around the same time that Clemmons was posting on Tumblr, a similar situation was unfolding.

Justin Carter, a 19-year-old from Texas, was chatting with a friend on Facebook.

No one remembers exactly what the comment was, but Justin's father Jack said the friend posted something to the effect of, "You're insane. You're messed up in the head."

"I'm f---ed in the head alright," Justin replied. "I think I'ma (sic) shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them."

"LOL," he added. Laughing out loud.

"j/k." Just kidding.

Carter spent five months in jail, a possible felony terrorism charge looming over his head. Like Clemmons, his family could not afford to pay his bond, which was set at $500,000. In July, an anonymous donor posted the bond and he was released, but an attorney for the Carter family said Carter suffered abuse while behind bars.

'Misguided young individual... overzealous authority'

To some, cases like Clemmons' and Carter's are unforgivable displays of injustice and judicial failings. For others, they are very real consequences of virtual actions. After all, people get fired all the time for missteps on social media, why should the bar for legal action be any different?

But this isn't Steubenville, the high school rape case that dredged up evidence displayed on social media and revealed digital artifacts of a real crime.  According to Carter and Clemmons, their posts never posed any real threat.

Barely two months before these boys -- no, men -- posted their joking threats, a 20-year-old man walked into an elementary school and killed 26 people. The same day as that shooting, an Oklahoma teen was arrested for plotting an attack on his high school. When his home was searched, police found a rifle. Classmates claimed they witnessed him researching pipe bombs and the Columbine massacre.

With a nation's grief still fresh from these events, Carter's alleged threat to "shoot up a kindergarten" probably stung more than usual.

"This is the silliest story and over reaction I have heard in a long time," an online commenter wrote on the Georga Southern newspaper's original report of Clemmons' arrest. "First, you have a fool hardy, somewhat misguided young individual, playing with matches. Then you have an overzealous authority, not only scaring the public, but making international headlines all the while looking like rather foolish as well."

In 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people and himself on the campus of Virginia Tech, in the deadliest single-gunman mass shooting in American history. Tim Kaine, who was Virginia's governor at the time, convened a panel of experts to examine what should have been done, what could have been done, to prevent the tragedy. The panel agreed that Seung-Hui slipped through the cracks and that his mental state and behavior, in retrospect a clear indicator something was wrong, had gone unquestioned.

That isn't to say you can profile a killer. But when someone claims to be a killer, it certainly draws attention.

'His whole life is beginning to unravel'

Caleb Clemmons and Justin Carter are not killers. Judging from their defenders, they never intended to be. But their virtual claims, claims made under cover of online personas, spoke, if even for a moment, otherwise. And despite the claims that neither meant any harm, those online actions carried real-life consequences.

Clemmons will now carry out a lengthy probation sentence. He must undergo psychological evaluation. He can't post on social media accounts, the very medium that led to his arrest.

As for Justin Carter, through the trauma of prison time and the uncertainty of his future, he says he has learned a lesson.

"I certainly would have thought a lot more about what I said and how permanent my writing -- and everyone's writing -- is (on the Internet). People should be very, very careful of what they say," Carter told CNN in July. "And you can get in trouble for something that's not something you should get in trouble for. I just want people to be warned."

There are some people that would take issue with Carter's comments that online "jokes" are "not something you should get in trouble for." Online commenters have made it clear that while prison time may seem stiff, in an age of school shootings and legitimate online threats, posting such violent content, even in a joking manner, is asking for punishment.

"In this day and age any threat of this magnitude needs to be taken seriously. Not only was it stupid, but with all of the gun violence taking place in today's society is, quite frankly terrifying." posted one Huffington post commenter about the Caleb Clemmons case.

"When are people going to learn that you just can't make these kinds of statements, even for a joke!" said another on MSN.

"My take on this is a simple fact," wrote one CNN commenter about Justin Carter's incarceration. "Sarcasm does not come through very well over the Internet. A serious threat (a person with plans, diagrams, weapons) and a jokester (as may be the case here) can both just as easily put 'j/k' at the end of a post."

Donald H. Flanary III, the Carter family attorney, told CNN that Carter's claim wasn't serious, but in terms of vigilance, no one in the legal system wanted to be responsible for a future incident if they released Carter and something did happen.

"In the times we're living in, it was kind of a perfect storm," he said.

In Georgia and across the nation, online support for Clemmons grew during his incarceration. A Change.org petition gathered almost 4,000 signatures pleading for his release. A GoFundMe page set up to raise money for Clemmons' bond collected more than $2,000 of its $5,000 goal. Clemmons' personal Tumblr page, where the alleged threat originated, has been taken over by his supporters and contains dozens of posts supporting Clemmons' account of the events.

"Caleb Clemmons is not a terrorist. Throughout this process, Caleb has been very honest, patience (sic), and compliant; in spite of this, this sweet young man has been absolutely traumatized over this horrific ordeal. He's located in an overcrowded, underfunded prison filled with racists. He was punched in the face and verbally and physically assaulted on multiple occasions over his skin pigmentation. He has been sent to solitary confinement due to the actions of others," the Change.org petition reads.

"His whole life is beginning to unravel at its seams and may be ruined forever over one misconstrued post."

First Amendment Center President Ken Paulson told the Huffington Post that there is a difference between posting something stupid online, and posting something illegal. "He essentially said he was doing it as an experiment to see how long it would take to have authorities respond," he said. "That's foolhardy, but not illegal."

"I don't want this kid to go to jail for 5 years, but he has to understand the severity of these types of threats," posted one Gawker commenter. "It's not funny or artistic, it's scary. I hope he is found not guilty, but I also hope he learned his lesson."

It is clear that, in the virtual world, there exists an uncertainty of intent. Who are these people posting these threats? To the average person on the Internet, who are Caleb Clemmons or Justin Carter? With no context, they could be violent criminals. Or they could be innocent kids making horrible decisions. When private comments mix with public forums, when the virtual world begets real-world consequences, the lines are more blurred than ever.

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