In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, in which two young men detonated bombs at the crowded finish line on Boylston Street and killed three people, and the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shooting, in which a young man shot to death 20 children and seven adults, the public and political leaders have begun debating how to detect potential threats before they become real tragedies.
In the midst of that debate, 18-year-old Cameron D’Ambrosio, a Methuen High School senior, was arrested on May 1 and charged with making a terroristic threat, a charge that carries up to 20 years in prison, after he wrote on Facebook that he would outdo the Marathon bombing, be famous for rapping and “beat every murder charge that comes across me.”
Two arguments have developed around D’Ambrosio’s arrest, his expletive-laced violent post and the balancing of freedom of expression with security, and specifically the need to prevent lethal random violence.
One argument is that the post, which included a vague boast of outdoing the Marathon bombing and killing people to get respect, is a threat to commit violence and the latest in a series of threats from the young man. Another is that the post is the expression of an artist using rap’s egotistical swaggering style and a reflection of a violent culture and world, giving D’Ambrosio’s post protection under the First Amendment.
D’Ambrosio, who police have said has a history of threatening violence , but later apologetically backing away from the statements, labeled himself a rapper on his Facebook page and has posted videos of himself rapping on YouTube.
“Political or artistic speech have additional protection under the First Amendment, but a true threat of violence has none,” said Dr. Morgan Marietta, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “The crux of the issue is what a reasonable person would conclude.”
Marietta said the line between what is considered artistic speech and a threat often depends on the interpretation of the average, reasonable person as to whether an expression is anexpression of intention, an artistic statement or just blowing off steam.
“If a reasonable person familiar with Facebook and other online communications would conclude that the post was an artistic expression or performance piece rather than a communication of his true feelings, then it may be constitutionally protected,” Marietta said. “On the other hand, if a reasonable person would perceive an actual threat of violence, there is no constitutional protection available, no matter how artistically the threat is phrased.”
The fact that the writing was published on a social media site complicates the question, because the language does not name a specific person or group and may not be considered a direct communication of a threat, particularly if D’Ambrosio’s privacy settings limit who can see what on his page.
Social media also can have the effect of distancing an author psychologically from his writing, posting something he may not say to someone else, Marietta said. But a reader may not feel that distance and perceive a threat.
In a dangerousness hearing in Lawrence District Court on Thursday, D’Ambrosio’s attorney, Geoffrey DuBosque, argued that D’Ambrosio was not guilty of “doing anything but writing bad rap lyrics.”
Marietta said the immediate context in which words are read or heard can influence how those words are interpreted. “The context and timing of any statement has a direct effect on how it is perceived by a reasonable person, so the proximity of the Marathon bombing and location of the threats in the Boston increase the perception of threat and therefore the potential criminality of the statements,” he said.
Complicating D’Ambrosio’s case, roughly 40 students came to Methuen High School associate principal James Weymouth and other administrators on May 1 to report the post and express alarm at its content.
Methuen Superintendent Judith Scannell on May 2 praised the students who came forward, saying administrators and police have urged students to be vigilant and report threats, particularly after a 17-year-old student was arrested in December for threatening to massacre the high school.
In that case, police and school officials said Methuen High School junior Jacob Butze-Maille told a student in person that he would shoot up the school like Columbine, and would shoot the student he was talking to first if she told anyone. The student immediately notified a school administrator, and Butze-Maille was arrested.
He is still in custody.
DuBosque did not specifically cite the First Amendment in court Thursday, but told Judge Lynn Rooney D’Ambrosio is being held in jail for “having made a posting on Facebook” with “absolutely no intent to threaten anybody or anyone.”
Rooney disagreed and expressed discomfort with a half dozen police reports that she said depicted a pattern of escalating behavior. According to the reports, D’Ambrosio has a history of making violent threats, once to his sister and once to a pair of eighth graders. Police responded to an incident in 2006, during which a woman said D’Ambrosio bit her son. In September, another student severely beat D’Ambrosio and put him in the hospital. Police Chief Joseph Solomon said the altercation started with a Facebook post by D’Ambrosio about the student’s girlfriend.
The judge on Thursday ordered him held without bail for up to 90 days, calling him a threat to the community. His next hearing is scheduled for June 3.
Police searched D’Ambrosio on May 1 when they arrested him, and executed a search warrant of his Glen Avenue home shortly thereafter. They found no weapons, explosives or other kinds of written threats. D’Ambrosio’s XBox and computer were seized and turned over to the State Police for analysis.
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