Be careful what you post on the internet, even in jest, because you never know who may end up seeing it. This is a lesson that a 26-year old man from the United Kingdom learned the hard way on a visit to the United States in 2012. A week prior to hopping aboard a flight to Los Angeles, Leigh Van Bryan posted a tweet asking a friend if she was "free this week, for quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?" He also posted a tweet about digging up Marilyn Monroe. Though he was only joking, the Department of Homeland Security took the tweets seriously. Bryan and his traveling companion, 24-year old Emily Bunting, were promptly detained upon landing at LAX while going through Customs. Bryan had been put on a "One Day Lookout" list. This list is "an auto-generated temporary list of inbound travelers that are already in the official terror watch list database." According to the Daily Mail, the pair "were held on suspicion of planning to 'commit crimes' and had their passports confiscated."
Once in custody, officials questioned them about why they wanted to 'destroy America.' Bunting and Bryan tried to explain that 'destroy' is a slang term in Britain for 'party.' In addition, their bags were searched to see if the pair had brought any spades or shovels to dig up Monroe. They were held at LAX for 5 hours before being transported to a holding cell. They spent the night there before being refused entry into the country and put on a plane back home. Bunting or Bryan were not charged with any crimes but now if either wishes to travel to the U.S., they will have to first get a visa from the U.S. Embassy in London.
This is just one such incident of a tweet leading to real world consequences. And the situation could have been much worse for Bryan and Bunting. Tweets have led to arrests, charges, and even jail time for some Twitter users. For example, in 2012 a 16-year old high school student was arrested after posting a series of tweets threatening to shoot up his school. He was charged in juvenile court with making threats to cause bodily injury. The teen later apologized for what he said, stating the whole thing was a misunderstanding and he hadn't meant the statements as a threat.
Another Twitter user, Jarvis Britton, faced much more serious consequences after making threats against President Obama on the social media site. The first time he did it he was questioned by the Secret Service, claimed he had been drunk at the time he tweeted, apologized for his statements, and was not prosecuted. However, a few months later when he posted threatening tweets again, he was not let off so lightly. Britton was charged with making threats against the president and subsequently sentenced to a year in federal prison.
It is important to remember that Twitter, like most social media platforms, is a public forum. Other people can and do see what you post on these sites. The troublesome issue with tweeting threats, even if it is meant sarcastically or as a joke, is that text often fails to convey tone. You may see the statement as harmless or humorous but others may take your words seriously and notify the authorities. And while a lot of speech is protected by the First Amendment, it is important to remember that there are limits to what it covers. Criminal charges, and the consequences that come with them, are a high price to pay for a tweet.