Recent Arrests Show Youth Don't Know the Legal Consequences of Online Speech

August 27, 2013

Last week a former Southern Georgia University psychology student named Caleb Clemmons was dealt a five-year ban from social media following his six-month jail sentence for threatening to "shoot up" his school online -- an empty threat that he viewed as a social experiment, reports Inside Higher Ed. Clemmons told his Tumblr followers to circulate his threat "to see the affect it has," and if he would be arrested. Three hours later he was in hand cuffs, though no weapons were found. Now Clemmons's friends and family are circulating online petitions calling for his exoneration.

The Clemmons case is just the latest of many in which college students face legal consequences for imprudent online activity. According to The University Herald, a Massachusetts teen was recently arrested for posting rap lyrics he penned referencing the Boston Marathon bombing. The problem seems to be a global one, too: In 2011, two British students were sentenced to four years in prison for inciting a riot online, even though no riot actually occurred. Bradley Shear, a lawyer who specializes in social media and Internet law, believes many students simply do not understand the risks online activities can pose.

"The travesty of all of this is that people -- especially young people -- don't understand their digital interactions create tremendous legal consequences," Shear told Inside Higher Ed.

Even Clemmons, who explicitly said he was tempting arrest as a social experiment, may not have understood the potential consequences of his actions. His friend, Alice Smith, who is helping raise awareness of his case, told The Daily Dot that while Clemmons's expected to be arrested, he did not anticipate a long-term incarceration when no weapons were found. "His post didn't cause any panic and anyone can decipher that it wasn't a serious post," she said.

How does one teach college students the potential consequences of their online activities? According to Inside Higher Ed, some experts believe that colleges should be doing more. As it stands, not many colleges -- not even Georgia Southern, the target of Clemmons's threat -- address social media policies at new student orientations, and only thin guidelines usually make it into student handbooks. Some college representatives suggest there is just no time to cover everything in orientations, but Tracy Mitrano, director of IT policy at Cornell University, told Inside Higher Ed that a digital divide between administrators and tech-savvy students may be at least partly to blame.

"To some degree, it is the assumption that the digital native already knows how to use these things," Mitrano said, "and by the time they get to college, they've had years of experience with them, so what new thing could a college orientation teach that an entering freshman does not know?"

Until colleges clarify their social media policies, Shear recommends students use a bit more judgment when making online posts. "My philosophy is if you make a threat -- whether it's a phone call, whether it's an email, whatever medium you utilize -- the same law applies throughout," he told Inside Higher Ed.

Compiled by Aimee Hosler


"A student made a bad joke on Tumblr and now he can't blog until 2018,", August 21, 2013, Max Rivlin-Nadler

"Another Digital Divide,", August 26, 2013, Carl Straumsheim

"Colleges Are Not Training Students on Social Media Despite Several Arrests for Online Threats,", August 26, 2013, Russell Westerholm

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