11 Tweets That Led to a Whole Mess of Legal Trouble
While some might argue that 140 characters aren't enough to adequately express a thought or have a conversation, others have discovered that a tweet or two is all it takes to end up in a courtroom. Here are 11 great tricks for tweeting yourself into a hot mess of litigation.
1. Threaten to "Destroy America" (But Not Really)
The difference between "party hard" and "terrorize" is pretty big, and also obvious. Once British slang is involved, though, it gets a little murky. Leigh Van Bryan, 26, tweeted "Free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?" meaning, "Come see me before I go to the States to get trashed, guys." But U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials read, "I'm on my way to bomb all the States. Come by if you want to help."
Van Bryan and his traveling companion were detained by Homeland Security overnight, during which they were interrogated about their plans. Though they tried to explain that "to destroy" is to "party quite hard in," the pair were put on a plane to Paris the next morning. Officials claim that in secondary interviews, details "revealed both individuals were inadmissible to the United States."
2. Joke About Blowing up an Airport
In January 2010, Paul Chambers was just a guy planning a trip from his home in Doncaster, England, to his girlfriend's in Northern Ireland, when a snowstorm threw a wrench in the works. Frustrated and afraid his upcoming flight would be cancelled, Chambers tweeted, "Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You've got a week to get your sh*t together, otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!"
Though the message was a joke and Robin Hood Airport did apparently get it together, two days before his scheduled flight five officers arrested Chambers at work, seized his computers and phone, and then interrogated him for eight hours before charging him with "sending a public electronic message that was grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character contrary to the Communications Act 2003." Chambers lost his job, had to pay $1500 in fines, and lost another job after his new employer discovered his felony conviction in a background search.
The ensuing media frenzy prompted Stephen Fry to hold a benefit event for the Twitter Joke Trial defendant, vowing to pay Chambers' legal fees and declaring he was "prepared to go to prison... if that's what it takes," to support Chambers' right to "innocuous hyperbole." Thousands of people retweeted Chambers' offensive message over the last two years tagged #iamspartacus and #twitterjoketrial to highlight the absurdity of his arrest. (None of these people were jailed.)
In 2011, Chambers' first appeal was dismissed by a judge at Doncaster Crown Court and his fines and fees were increased to $4100. In February 2012, a second appeal reached the High Court. Chambers' solicitor David Allen Green says the Court's decision will have a "potentially immense significance" for everyone who uses social media, since this is the "first 'appellate' case on what constitutes a 'menacing' communication over the internet."
3. Tell Police You're Waiting at the State Capitol ... to Kill Them
The first person ever arrested for 140 characters worth of nonsense was 52-year-old Oklahoma City resident Daniel Knight Hayden, whose excitement about an upcoming OKC Tea Party rally was a little... overzealous. Hayden was so amped about overthrowing the government that he imagined a civil war on the capitol building steps and offered himself up as a martyr. The problematic updates included gems like "START THE KILLING NOW! I am willing to be the FIRST DEATH!" and "After I am killed on the Capitol Steps, like a REAL man, the rest of you will REMEMBER ME!!!"
This went on for a few days, but on April 14, 2009, when Hayden urged his followers to "Send the cops around" so he could "cut off the[ir] heads and throw the[m] on the State Capitol steps," the FBI decided to pay him a visit. He was arrested and charged with making interstate threats, and in 2010 Hayden was sentenced to eight months in prison for "knowingly transmitting a threatening communication."
4. Help a Bunch of Rioters Evade Police
The Pittsburgh Group of 20 rich and developing nations summit in September 2009 kicked off with a bang when anti-capitalist and anarchist protesters rioted, damaging public and personal property before police moved in to disband the crowds. Elliot Madison, a 41-year-old New Yorker, sent Twitter updates of the police force locations and movements to help other protesters avoid arrest. A similar tactic had been used in Iran and China in prior months during demonstrations in those countries, during which time the U.S. State Department asked Twitter not to perform a scheduled upgrade as it might temporarily restrict service.
This time, though, the tactic was called "hindering apprehension or prosecution by law enforcement," and Madison was arrested. When the FBI later raided his residence, they confiscated various items, including multiple dog toys and his Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs.
Madison and his lawyer argued that the charges (including "possessions of weapons of crime," which in this case was Madison's phone) were erroneous and a violation of free speech protection. By November, Pennsylvania agreed, and dropped all charges. But the state said his activities "may have been related to more expansive activities that went beyond the Pittsburgh G20 in both time and substance" and didn't rule out charging him in the future.
5. Accuse Your Former Fashion Designer of Being a Prostitute
Courtney Love had a falling out with designer Dawn Simorangkir in early 2009, apparently over money. Instead of settling the bill, Love took to Twitter, calling Simorangkir (among other things) a "drug-pushing prostitute." Thus began the first high-profile Twitter lawsuit, which Love lost. In 2011, the suit was finally settled for $430,000.
6. Accuse Your Former Lawyer of Accepting Bribes
Rhonda Holmes briefly represented Courtney Love in 2009. The professional relationship was dissolved and Love and Holmes parted ways, until Love requested legal help again several months later. The firm declined, inspiring Love to imply via Twitter that Holmes was paid to deny her legal counsel. Specifically, she said she was "devastated when Rhonda J Holmes esq of San Diego was bought off." After Love settled her previous defamation suit, Holmes filed her own, which is expected to go to jury trial this year.
7. Tell Your Followers They Should Switch Banks
Jean Ramses Anleu Fernández was "raided, arrested, sent before a judge, and sentenced" all in one day for "inciting financial panic," a criminal offense in Guatemala. The tweet (which has since been deleted) suggested that people who had money in state-controlled bank Banrural should withdraw their funds to disrupt the control of "corrupt people" over the financial institution.
Banrural was at the center of a national political scandal involving Guatemala's president, Álvaro Colom, who just days before had been implicated in the murder of an attorney who uncovered fraudulent transactions through the bank. Anleu Fernández admitted to posting the update about Banrural, which, amidst the outcry at his arrest, was retweeted thousands of times. His sentence involved house arrest and a hefty $6500 fine -- more than the $5000 per capita income in the country. Later, the murder in which the president was allegedly involved was ruled a suicide. Colom finished out his term in 2012.
8. Tweet Your Live-Action Mean Girls Reenactment
A 12-year-old boy, a 17- and two 16-year-old girls were arrested in Arkansas in January this year for posting "vulgar and derogatory rumors" about classmates from two separate accounts. The especially worrying tweets encouraged another student to kill himself and mocked a female student for having an eating disorder. The tweets were sufficiently hateful to earn all four students cyber-bullying charges, though no sentences have yet been handed down.
9. Be a Drunk-Driver-Enabling Social Media Platform
The Brazilian government filed a suit against Twitter in early February, citing concerns that the microblogging site undermines the country's efforts to curb drunk driving. It seems there are accounts that announce police speed traps and road blocks, ostensibly giving intoxicated drivers a chance to avoid the Breathalyzer and increased opportunity to injure or kill themselves and others on the road. The suit orders Twitter to pay $290,000 per day until all of the accounts are suspended. Twitter has not commented on the case, but a publicly posted content withholding policy states that the company has the "ability to withhold content from users in a specific country" when necessary to comply with national law and custom.
10. Create a Company Twitter Account, Then Take it With You When You Quit
Noah Kravitz was an editor for PhoneDog, a company that shares news and reviews about smartphones, communications devices, and telecom companies. The Twitter account he started (and used for his personal updates as well) had amassed 17,000 followers by the time he left PhoneDog in October 2011. A couple of months later, PhoneDog sent Kravitz a lawsuit totaling $340,000 -- $2.50 per follower per month since his departure. PhoneDog claims the followers are company property, and Kravitz counters that the account technically belongs to Twitter, therefore negating any claim PhoneDog has to its followers. The suit is not yet resolved.
11. And Sometimes, Not Tweeting Is the Problem
In November 2009, a stampede of frenzied teenage girls overtook a Garden City mall when some guy named Justin Bieber showed up. His manager Scooter Braun, who was in charge of keeping the peace, was arrested for not tweeting a notice from Bieber's account that the party was over and everyone had to go home. The charges state that Braun "created a dangerous safety situation" by failing to disperse the crowd, and he was arrested and charged with fire safety violations. After several months of litigation, the charges against Braun were dropped when the Biebs agreed to shoot an anti-cyberbullying PSA.