Law experts in Nacogdoches say threatening words do matter
NACOGDOCHES, TX (KTRE) - Here in East Texas, a number of verbal threats involving schools and even arrests have occurred since the Florida shootings.
The incidents present a question. When do comments cross the line between freedom of speech and a threat?
East Texas News spoke with a constitutional law professor and a criminal defense attorney to explain.
Nacogdoches attorney Tim James makes it his business to defend the accused. He's no stranger to representing clients facing terroristic threat charges.
"Many terroristic threat cases, but none in this context where you've done it under these circumstances where there's just been a mass killing and you say, 'I'm going to do that here,'" James said.
The Constitution protects free speech, but the law is very clear in its interpretation.
"About fifty years ago, the Supreme Court in the Miller case said you can't shout fire in a crowded theatre," James said. "And here you have the environment of the Florida school shooting and others. And now you have other kids in school saying, 'Hey, we're going to do the same thing. That is as close as I can get to shouting fire in a crowded theatre."
Youth and even their parents may say the words shouldn't be taken seriously. Law experts warn it's no joking matter.
"This is a lesson to everybody that you're responsible with what you say and what you do," James said.
"I assume we can talk about your question," a Stephen F. Austin State University professor asked East Texas News.
Dr. Charles Gregory, an assistant professor at SFA, can use the lesson of free speech vs. verbal threat in his pre-law class.
"It's another thing to actually talk about violence and actually wanting to incite violence," Gregory said. "And it's very clear that hateful speech in terms of violence is not protected."
Gregory said words have consequences. It's borrowed knowledge passed on from one president to another.
"Be cognizant of the words you are using and understand that words do matter," Gregory said. "It's not like what we always heard as kids, 'sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.' we're a different age now. We're talking about adults. Words can hurt even more so than stones or sticks."
There are varying degrees of terroristic threat consequences ranging from misdemeanor to felony charges.
Those where schools are placed in a direct threat are often considered third-degree felonies.
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