This falls under the truly disgusting category. Yesterday Kathy Sierra posted that she has been receiving death threat comments on her Creating Passionate Users blog. Kathy has subsequently canceled speaking engagements and remains at home terrified with the doors locked. What ultimately “pushed her over the edge” were seeing similar “disturbing threats of violence and sex” posted on two other blogs.
I couldn’t honestly do justice to Kathy’s story so I’ll refer you to her post Death threats against bloggers are NOT “protected speech” (why I canceled my ETech presentations) in which she talks about her ordeal. Chris Locke responsed to Kathy’s allegations and Frank Paynter has also offered a response. But please read Kathy’s post to understand what she is currently having to deal with.
Robert Scoble is taking the week off as a show of support for Kathy. He’s also concerned because the same sites have mentioned him.
Before saying anything else I want to offer my own support to Kathy. No one should ever be subjected to threats of death and misogyny. There is no time either is acceptable behavior and above all I hope Kathy can feel safe again and put this incident behind her.
I’m not sure whether or not these kind of threats fall under the first amendment as Kathy alludes to in her post title. The nearest I could find was that this might fall under what’s considered “fighting words,” but I think the law has a different intention with the idea of “fighting words. The best information I could find on the issue comes from the Salt Lake City Attorney’s Office, Guidelines Regarding Free Speech.
I’m a firm believer and supporter of free speech even when the particular speech in question is something I personally find objectionable. Prohibiting free speech of any kind sets a dangerous precedent and while some things such as yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater should not be protected we should be very careful with what speech we don’t protect. If you or I decide that something is so objectionable that it deserves censorship we open the door for someone else to decide something you or I say tomorrow is also objectionable and not deserving of protection. In order to protect your own right to free speech you must also protect the free speech of others even if that includes organizations preaching hatred or other words you find offensive.
In this case I don’t believe that death threats legally fall under what’s considered free speech. I had a hard time finding much to help me in my legal search, but I think threats of death fall under what would be considered intent to hard or intent to injure or something similar. The best information I could find is from the Encyclopedia Britannica in an entry about assault and battery.
battery being the unlawful application of physical force to another and assault being an attempt to commit battery or an act that causes another reasonably to fear an imminent battery.
I would think that death threats fall under an ‘act that causes another to reasonably fear imminent battery.’
Sad to say the second best source of information seems to be the WIkiPedia’s definition of death threats. Believe it or not I did spend a considerable amount of time looking through the US constitution and various legal sites and perhaps I’m looking for the wrong legal term or my skills in legalese have eroded, but I couldn’t find anything helpful. If anyone knows the law or could point out a good source of information I’d greatly appreciate it.
The Wikipedia entry above as well as a few mentions of the issue I saw here and there would indicate that death threats are a states issue and may or may not be illegal depending on where you live. That’s pretty scary if you ask me.
Like I said I don’t know the law and I don’t really know all the specifics in this incident. What I do know is that what Kathy is having to deal with is unequivocally wrong. My guess is those who made the threats have no real intention of carrying them out and Kathy would be perfectly safe leaving her home and attending her engagements, but it’s easier for me to say that from a distance than it is for her to live it.
It’s a shame that people can hide behind the the false courage of an anonymous username to make such threats. (oddly enough the email listed in the one comment Kathy posted looks very familiar to me as one commonly sending me spam comments) It’s also frighteningly sad and disturbing that there are people who think threats of violence are fair game. They aren’t.
Regardless of how the whole incident started it’s certainly turned ugly and some have seriously crossed the line in acceptable behavior. Please read Kathy’s post about the incident and offer her support in any way you can even if that simply means wishing her well and thinking good thoughts on her behalf.
Download a free sample from my book, Design Fundamentals.