Is free will being lost in efforts to manage freedom of expression?
A discussion about freedom of expression and free will, and a possible trend by law enforcement to make pre-emptive arrests well before a crime is committed
In our last post, Why is Grenada getting so much flak over its Electronic Crimes Act?, we discussed the proposed Bill to establish offences committed via the Internet or electronically, and paid specific attention to the section that sought to make the sending offensive messages a crime. Due to the attention and criticisms that have been levelled at draft legislation, the Grenada Government has indicated its intention to review the document, and to revise provisions that might be inconsistent with the basic tenets of a democratic society (Source: Caribbean News Now).
However, in other news yesterday, a 19-year old male has been in jail in the United States (US) for over four months because of a comment he made on Facebook. Without a doubt, some parallels can be made with that case (which will be summarised below) and section 6 of Grenada’s Electronic Crimes Act on sending offensive messages through communications services. However, there might be a bigger issue to consider: are our societies moving towards the point where what we say unequivocally and conclusively represents what we, as humans, will actually do?
Pre-emptive law enforcement?
Earlier this year, Justin Carter, then18 years old, was arguing with someone via Facebook about the online game, League of Legends. CNN reported the following earlier this week:
His father told CNN that the other gamer called Justin crazy and his son responded with sarcasm.
According to court documents, Justin wrote, “I’m f***ed in the head alright. I think I’ma (sic) shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them.”
Jack Carter said his son followed the claim with “LOL” and “J/K” — indicating that the comment wasn’t serious.
Someone, who saw the comments in his/her news feed – but not one of the parties involved in the squabble – contacted the Police, who in turn charged Justin with making terrorist threats. In the state of Texas, where the arrest was made, Justin could be imprisoned for up to eight years if successfully convicted.
As can be expected, Justin’s plight is receiving wide support. A petition is being circulated online lobbying for his release from jail. Additionally, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has taken an interest in the case, sought to put the matter into context:
“We are all concerned about safety in our schools, but that’s not what is at issue here,” said Rebecca L. Robertson, legal and policy director for the ACLU of Texas. “The First Amendment protects a person’s speech — even speech that is in poor taste — as long as it is not a true threat.
“Justin’s online comment might have been distasteful and thoughtless. But, if the facts as reported are true, his comment is an objectionable joke rather than an actual threat, in which case the Comal County District Attorney is prosecuting protected speech. That’s a dangerous precedent.”
Is art imitating life?
While most of us might agree with the ACLU that Justin’s comments, though allegedly said in jest, were distasteful and thoughtless, his arrest by the Texas Police does not take into account our free will as humans – the ability to change our minds and make other choices. In that regard, this incident could draw similarities to the movie, Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise, which was released in the summer of 2002.
Movie synopsis: Set in 2054, Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderson, is a member of a pre-crime police force, whose mandate is to prevent murders before they happen, by arresting the would-be criminals before the murders are committed. However, the question of free will and determinism are explored when the system used to foresee the murders predicts that John Anderson will soon commit a murder.
Most of us might be familiar with the concept of free will – the freedom to make choices that are not predetermined by earlier actions or divine intervention. A contrast would be determinism. Determinism speaks to a construct where, based on the conditions that exist, there might be only one outcome. In other words, some results are inevitable if certain pre-conditions, preceding events, etc., have occurred or have been set into motion.
Freedom of expression, free will and determinism
From the above discourse, a number of points for further discussion and consideration emerge. What might those be for you? Five are outlined below:
1. Unless you are sending direct or private messages, social networks, such as Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter, are generally public spaces. Although Justin Carter might have been having a “private conversation”, someone, who were not necessarily part of the discussion was privy to it, and was sufficiently alarmed by its content to notify the Police. More importantly, the Police construed Justin’s utterances as a “real threat”, rather than a joke, and he has been in prison for over four months awaiting trial.
2. In the past, only a select few categories of persons, such as politicians and artists, had a public platform through which to share their thoughts and influence others. To varying degrees, those persons would be cognisant of the power they hold and exercise care regarding their utterances and actions. However, Web 2.0 and social networks have changed everything. Everyone can have a voice and can publicly express his or her own viewpoint. However, policymakers might still be grappling with how to process the deluge of information and positions that are now publicly available, and to isolate those that ought to be more closely examined from the dross.
3. The Police and law enforcement agencies are under considerable pressure worldwide to manage crime. Over the past 10 years, “national security” has become a major buzzword, but ultimately aims to protect a country from internal and external threats. Hence, to the extent that certain systems can be established to prevent certain damaging situations from actually happening, by executing pre-emptive actions, that is likely to get increasing support in the future.
4. While the lawyers and philosophers among us are invited to debate this issue and share their thoughts in our Comments section, there seems to be a growing and uneasy tension between what we say – an intent we might have expressed – and the extent to which it somehow is interpreted as committing us to a specific course of action or outcome.
5, Finally, Justin Carter’s situation might be unprecedented, or at the very least unique, and it is entirely possible that he will not be successfully convicted. However, in societies where persons have easy access to weapons and raw materials that can be synthesised to wreak havoc, and the fact that no security system is infallible, technology is providing law enforcements with opportunities to take pre-emptive steps and save individual persons or the society as a whole from very unpleasant consequences.
In the coming months and years, it will be interesting to see how society decides to balance freedom of expression, free will and determinism.
Image credit: YST (aka kryptos5) / Flickr