Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » What constitutes an online threat, Part Two

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Here we go again. To Friday's story about the anti-nuclear forum, an anonymous person named Pittink posted a comment about Bill Harris with Exelon.

Mr. Harris called that morning to complain about the post, but Pittink apparently had edited out the offending word before I went to the Web site to check on it. I explained to Mr. Harris that our policy was to delete offending comments and warn or ban repeat violators. Because Pittink already had self-edited his comment, we had no action to take.

I share the exchange that followed only because regular Advocate blogger Kenneth Schustereit decided to make this a public issue. Along with calling me, he copied about a dozen people on the following e-mail exchange. The latest development today: A sheriff's department investigator called the Advocate for information about Pittink's identity.

We've covered this ground before when law enforcement requested information about a perceived threat against Victoria County District Attorney Stephen Tyler. See my previous post about that here. You also may want to read more here about how we moderate our online forums.

I anticipate we'll handle any official request from law enforcement the same way this time. The comment, as described, didn't strike me as a threat, but that's for law enforcement and, if it gets that far, the courts to decide. My hope is the authorities weigh carefully how far they want to go with hearsay evidence of a possible threat. To say that another way, the offending word is no longer on the site, and we have no physical evidence of it.

For your background, here is the e-mail exchange between Mr. Schustereist and me on the subject:

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Dear all,
Just spoke with Chris Cobler at the Advocate. Undoubtedly terroristic threats are a "gray area" and Pittink is still being allowed to post. The Advocate did not take the time to notify the authorities. They obviously see no harm in this type of behavior.
No one has taken the time or responsibility to find out just who this nutcase is so I guess we're all alright now.
Y'all sleep well!
Kenneth

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To clarify Ken's comments for those who don't know the entire story: Someone unknown to us reportedly posted what some might consider a threat and others might consider a stupid movie reference. Regardless, I didn't see the comment before that same person apparently changed the post to remove the offending word.
 
I spoke this morning with Bill Harris, who pointed out the change to me. I explained to him and then later to Kenneth that our policy is to remove comments that violate our policy and to warn repeat offenders. We took no action against this person, who is anonymous to us, because we did not see the offending comment. We have no desire to report people on our Web site to law enforcement.
 
I hope that helps clarify the issue. If you have anything else you'd like to discuss, Bill, please let me know.
 
Regards,
 
Chris Cobler

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An interesting reply indeed. Bill Harris said others phoned him about the offending post so it's not as if other people didn't know about it.
As far as I can remember threats to kill someone are considered a terroristic threat and punishable to say the most and worth investigating to say the least.
Any I.T. guy worth his salt should be able to track where the offending post came from and should.
Now shall we consider Columbine, Virginia Tech and all the others? There were always warning signals that were ignored by supposedly intelligent, educated people. Go ahead, stop me when I've said something not factual!
Now imagine for a second the unthinkable! An incident happens and it's the person who was insane enough to write such a post and all is on record that the Advocate did nothing because, "We have no desire to report people on our Web site to law enforcement."
Where would the liability stand? Who would own the Advocate then?
Now if I'm just all wet, fine! Run this by a legal risk analysis expert and see what he says! Trust me! I'm not sweating that answer!
Oh yeah, ask Tom Forbes of NET how close he got to being assaulted at the anti-nuke rally. Then look back at all the nasty vitriol and name calling the poster in question has done in the last few months. Feed that to the legal risk analysis expert too.
Come on, Chris! You're an educated individual! Use a little common sense!
What was it everyone always said? "We never thought that could happen here?" Well, I never thought people from Victoria could be this nasty and this vicious either.
Having said all that a statement and a question; At least I have the courage and integrity to put my name on what I write. AND
Is there a personal injury lawyer in the house?

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Ken,

We have run this position by our attorneys. Courts have held that individual posters are legally responsible for their actions, not the newspaper. We think the online community should police itself. 

You saw the comment. If you want to report it to the authorities, that is your right. We have no legal way to trace it back to the individual. 

Regards,

Chris Cobler

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I'm assuming Ken or someone else did follow through and report the post to the sheriff's department. I'm not even clear why this would be within the sheriff department's jurisdiction, but that's the uncertain nature of cyberspace. What are your thoughts?