The judicial example of Justin Carter

Justin Carter. The name probably isn’t too familiar to you if you’re not a big follower of all the news on the net. To me though, the name Justin Carter sends a shiver down my spine. Not for who he is, but what has happened to him.

You see, Justin Carter is not a murderer. He is not a thief. He is an eighteen year old gamer from Texas who made an inappropriate comment on Facebook. He is now in jail, with a half-million dollar bail, and could remain in jail for up to ten years. How did this happen? I’m not entirely sure. I mean, I know what happened, but I’m not sure how it ended up at this point.

Let me break it down. Carter got into an argument on Facebook. I know many of you have got into arguments on Facebook or other social media sites, and maybe you’ve said something you regret, without thinking. The idea that just because it’s typed means an eighteen year old is going to think about what he says more is ridiculous. Granted, in the light of the recent Sandy Hook school shootings, it was tasteless for Carter to respond to the insult that he was ‘messed up in the head’ by saying that:

“I think Ima shoot up a kindergarten / And watch the blood of the innocent rain down/ And eat the beating heart of one of them.”

Crass? Sure. The deranged ramblings of a killer? Not quite. It would be easy to talk about the ‘violent tendencies’ of ‘gamers’ in this article. Maybe a good comparison was another incident in the US a few years back when a man was fired from his job by joking during the day at his job about how many people he was going to headshot online in the evening. Talking about killing people at your job, and discussing shooting in a school on a public forum. Both of these things are fundamentally stupid and ill-thought out. I don’t deny this.

However, when a woman who happened to see the comment reported it to the police, this comment, with no evidence to the public eye yet that this was anything but a sarcastic comment, has landed Carter in jail, with his family unable to pay to get him out.

Reports have Carter as being massively depressed in jail, which is unsurprising. He’s not a hardened criminal, he’s not a psychopath. He’s just a stupid kid.

This case though raises wider questions about free speech on the internet. Facebook and Twitter, despite security settings, really are still part of the public sphere. This Carter case only supports the idea that people are increasingly having to watchPoster Boy NYC what they say on social media. This isn’t an issue of political correctness, these people aren’t getting slapped on the wrist: this is jail time.

Also, cases such as this must be separated from other cases of hate speech; people have been punished for homophobic or racial slurs, and maybe this could be punished even further. But that is made a mockery of when something that, whilst offensive, is not hate speech, is punished so severely seemingly just to make an example of someone.This is, for me, something we should all take seriously. I’d like to think that under no circumstance would I be racist or homophobic, because I’m neither of those things. However, could you or I trust ourselves, with social media being so prevalent nowadays and a lot of us, myself included, being somewhat addicted, to restrict ourselves so that everything we say cannot be misconstrued?

I’m not saying what Carter said wasn’t stupid, but the punishment doesn’t fit the ‘crime’. Carter has done nothing, he has not attacked anyone, not even with words. His words were so absurd that, if serious, someone would have noticed something wrong with him by now. I’m worried that cases like this will set a dangerous precedent, that even the smallest comment, if misconstrued, could destroy lives, and the advantages given to us by social media are outweighed by the possible dangers.

I was bordering on the lines once before. One time on holiday I learned that Justin Bieber was staying in the same hotel as me. Of course, in my brain, there was a joke in there somewhere. I was about to make a slightly crude but in the end harmless joke when something stopped me. It was an awareness about earlier examples similar to the Carter case. Who’s to say though that someone less informed than me about the dangers of social media wouldn’t have gone through with a joke about wanting to assassinate him for the greater good, which if someone not understanding the joke had seen it, could have had SWAT bursting in on them?

Unfortunately I don’t have a solution to this problem. I’m reticent to say that people should just be careful, because one, where’s the fun in that, and two, people make mistakes. I do, however, believe that the Carter case sets a dangerous precedent, certainly in terms of the level of punishment. I for one fear a world where you always have to carefully word every tweet, every Facebook status and every blog post for fear of not only someone misunderstanding you, but having to deal with the police too.


(Header image courtesy of Flickr/ FreddieBrown & body image courtesy of Flickr/Poster Boy NYC)

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