The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has joined state police in the investigation surrounding a rise in the number of bomb threats in Massachusetts over the past months. Recently, five Massachusetts schools received bomb threats on the same day. At least two of the threats were called in by telephone. The five bomb threats at four high schools and a preschool, were all later determined to be hoaxes.
State Police say they do not know if the threats were linked in any way. A couple of months ago, a number of Massachusetts high schools received bomb threats from someone calling himself "Jared the Terrorist." In October, students at a high school in Bedford, Massachusetts were dismissed early and the library closed down after the principal received an email threat. The FBI has now indicated that the threats may be coming from overseas.
The people calling in the bomb threats may think that it is a joke, but criminal charges can follow as the result of calling in a false bomb threat which results in evacuation of a school, as in the above cases. Massachusetts General Laws provide for serious penalties for bomb threats which can include incarceration from 3 to 20 years in jail, and fines of up to $50,000.
In the past, some incidents of online bomb threats have been claimed to be protected free speech. The issue of online threats and free speech has recently been taken up by the Supreme Court. The Court is considering the case of a man in Pennsylvania who was convicted of making violent threats through Facebook posts about killing his wife, harming police officers, and shooting up a school. The man, Anthony Elonis, has argued he was only joking, imitating Eminem's rap lyrics.
Elonis wrote a number of posts on Facebook about how he wanted to stab, smother and behead his estranged wife. When he was later served with a Protection From Abuse order, a type of restraining order, he followed up with the post, "fold up your PFA and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?" In support of his position that he was just joking, Elonis even played Eminem's rap lyrics in open court, including "Da-da made a nice bed for mommy at the bottom of the lake."
Elonis' now ex-wife said she felt threatened and afraid, and got a protective order against him. The government's position is that her belief that it was a threat should be the standard for whether it was a violent threat. Elonis' attorney argued that her belief is too limiting because they may not understand that the alleged threat was only a joke. Just as the justices struggled over where to draw the line between free speech and violent threats, critics have voiced their concerns on both sides. Free speech proponents stand on the side of Elonis, while domestic violence advocates argued social media threats cannot be dismissed.
The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) has spoken out to uphold the conviction of Elonis. According to NNEDV President Kim Gandy, it was irrelevant whether he actually meant to kill his wife. Rather, his threats were successful in further abusing his wife by making her fear for her life. Meanwhile, the high court will deliberate to determine what prosecutors must prove to convict a person for making criminal threats.