When Insult Becomes Threat

Some Facebook posts cross the line of decency, respect

By Phoebe Dinner | Spanish River High School

In class, color guard teacher Marline O’Farrill and student Raven Fox were continually lashing out at each other at Everglades High School.

“In class she hated being corrected, and didn’t like being told she was wrong,” O’Farrill said.

Fox felt that O’Farrill was picking on her. The final confrontation pushed Fox over the edge in class one day.

“She threw my shoes in the garbage,” Fox said. “I was really angry that she was treating me so differently.”

Fox had it. She went home after that class and, burning with anger, logged onto Facebook and wrote, “I hate her, I am going to key her car.”

Nearly 1,500 friends on Fox’s Facebook page were able to view the threats.

“If I was able to see it, so was a whole lot of other people,” O’Farrill said.

O’Farrill was right; about 750 million active Facebook users had access to Fox’s threats. With Facebook users spending an average total of 700 billion minutes on Facebook per month and each having about 130 friends, O’Farrill’s students could have easily seen the threats. O’Farrill cringed with embarrassment.

Two peers from another school were provoking Fox to say more hurtful messages about O’Farrill. But, the posts did not sit right with some of O’Farrill’s other students and they brought it to the teacher’s attention the next morning.

O’Farrill is not alone. Although a cyber-threat is not considered as dangerous as a gun, 24 percent of people have admitted to being threatened through the computer, according to isafe.org, a leading source on Internet safety education.

O’Farrill took the threat very seriously and went directly to the principal. The school was already recovering from a prior cyber bully incident. The principal had a new discipline plan – a 10-day suspension that was shortened when Fox’s parents complained.

O’Farrill thought the punishment should have been more severe. Fox thought she should not have been suspended at all.

The Florida law, the Jeffrey Johnston Stand Up for All Students Act, prohibits bullying, calls for swift investigation and then refers the victims and perpetrators to counseling. The act is named for a student repeatedly bullied until he committed suicide.

Jeffrey Johnston’s torturers never suffered for the threats.

Even with the law, experts say Facebook threats present more serious implications.

“If over social network, someone writes words that are a serious threat to safety, [It] might have criminal liability,” said First Amendment Lawyer Sam Terilli.

Facebook does not take responsibility for threats. Even if threats are reported to Facebook headquarters, there is nothing that can force the removal. Their privacy policy reads: “We offer personal controls, such as the ability to cut ties with or hide people, pages, and applications that offend you.”

These personal controls do not suffice when it comes to threats. O’Farrill was not “friends” with Fox on Facebook and was not able to hide the threatening comment from any other user of the site.

Facebook privacy policy also says, “Reporting a profile, group, page or any other content doesn’t guarantee that they or it will be removed. One of the primary reasons people use Facebook is to share content with others. If you do not want us to store metadata associated with content you share on Facebook (such as photos), please remove the metadata before uploading the content.”

“There is an explosion of concern when it comes to cyber bullying,” said Nancy Willard, executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use.

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