FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

Florida bill would classify online threats as second-degree felony

By John Haughey
The Center Square
April 5, 2021

Old and new State Capitol buildings in Tallahassee, FL.

Under a social media measure fast-tracking through the Florida Legislature, any online threat to injure or kill another person would be a second-degree felony.

House Bill 921, sponsored by Rep. John Snyder, R-Stuart, has unanimously advanced through two House committee hearings and was placed Wednesday on the chamber’s agenda for a floor vote likely next week.

HB 941’s Senate companion, Senate Bill 1850, filed by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, is also ready for a chamber vote after passing through the Senate Criminal Justice Subcommittee in a 7-0 vote on March 16 and the chamber’s Rules Committee in a 13-3 vote on Wednesday.

Current Florida law currently says threats posted online must be directly messaged in order for the threat to be considered a criminal act. For instance, if someone makes a Facebook post threatening someone, it would only be considered a crime if the threat was in a direct message.

Under HB 921/SB 1850, any post that contains language that threatens to “kill or to do bodily harm to another person” or “conduct a mass shooting or an act of terrorism” and can saddle the offender with a second-degree felony, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“There is significant ambiguity when it comes to the posting of threats via Twitter or other open forum platforms,” Snyder said on the House floor Wednesday when HB 941 was read a second time.

HB 941/SB 1850 “closes that loophole and makes certain that threatening language that is posted, transmitted or sent is, in fact, eligible for prosecution,” he said, noting the Florida Police Chiefs Association supports the measure.

The only flak the proposed measure has received thus far was in Wednesday’s Senate Rules Committee hearing under questioning by Sen. Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Ft. Lauderdale, who voted against SB 1850, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, who voted for it.

“If I simply say, ‘I’m going to punch the next person I see wearing a mask.’ Does that put me in defiance of this bill, where I’m facing a second-degree felony and 15 years?” Thurston asked.

“That’s already in statutes right now, of what constitutes a second-degree felony,” Perry replied, noting the bill doesn’t address what is or is not considered a threat, but only broadens existing law to adjust to new technologies.

“This bill just says, those things that are considered a threat that would be a second-degree felony, now instead of being communicated in written form or emails, you can also communicate that in other forms electronically.” Perry said.

Brandes wondered if maybe electronic threats shouldn’t be judged the same way written threats are because of the casual, informal nature of online communications.

“When I filed the medical marijuana bill, my mom threatened to kill me. She texted me, ‘If you file this bill, I’m going to kill you.’ Although she had no desire to do that, I’m sure.” Brandes said. “I think the challenge with messages unlike written speech or unlike speech is, you lose context.”

But that would already be a crime under existing Florida law, Perry explained, because the alleged threat was conveyed directly in an email. If Brandes’ mother had issued her “threat” in a public Facebook post, HB 912/SB 1850 would make that a crime.

“If things are being put out in the public and you are seeing those and you would get a thing you would receive and you could turn that over to law enforcement and they would then be able to utilize this law and be able to go in and investigate that and potentially bring charges,” he said.

 

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