A threat is a threat except on Facebook?

Last week, an old friend of mine from the TAO days testified at a trial in Toronto as a “Facebook expert” in a case involving a man who has been accused of making threats (including death threats) against the Children’s Aid Society and a public health nurse who recommended the removal.

The short version is this: A child was removed from a home by CAS (reasons for removal are not clear and not at issue in this case), enraging the father (DS) who then went on Facebook and created a group with the express purpose of petitioning to get his child back. However, what it really amounted to was a place for DS to blow off steam and threaten public service workers with being bombed or otherwise harmed. He has been charged with uttering threats as a result.

Jesse Hirsh’s testimony was for the defense (expert witness). He basically said that DS shouldn’t be found guilty because threats on Facebookaren’t “real threats”; they occur in a “fantasy environment”, are embellishments of real life, and thus shouldn’t be taken seriously. The National Post article states that he further argued the intent of DS’s outraged statements was likely to garner more friends on Facebook, or attract more interest in his case (I am not sure if this is just the NP take on the testimony or what Jesse actually said).

While Jesse’s comments were really confined to the Facebook environment, it makes me cringe as a public sector worker who has been on the receiving end of electronic threats, to hear them.

Public harassment of civil service workers is a pretty common theme whenever they conduct surveys on such things – but while those surveys give us some generalities, rarely do the studies delve any further. Having worked for crown corporations and government for over a decade, I can tell you that I have heard many stories of my co-workers being screamed at in public meetings, physically threatened while on the job, and receiving email or phone messages containing threats against them. Aside from all that, my building has been evacuated no less than five times in my career because of bomb threats – an event that rarely makes the news – and I suspect happens to other public facilities more often than they like to admit.

Yeah, I know, boo hoo. Poor us. But come on people! We’ve got jobs that are apparently legitimate by this society’s standards. We are taking direction from the governments that you elect. Your anger at the bureaucracy has a lot more to do with policy decisions made at the top by elected officials than anything we are doing day to day at our desks.

I recognize that this case involves some different dynamics, and I don’t know the merits of the removal of the child from the home – I am sure that is a situation that is unparalleled in terms of emotional pain for the accused. But I’m not sure I can buy that uttering threats on Facebook is different than emailing a threat, or screaming it at a public meeting. While I recognize that blogs and Facebook are personal spaces that people feel they can simply blow off steam – ascertaining intent (or credibility of threat) is something that is unfortunately most effectively done after injury.

While I can accept (and have even encouraged at times) a lot of anger at the government, protests, even property damage as part of the public’s response to programs and actions they don’t like – I really do draw the line at personal harassment or individual/collective injury as a mechanism to control or influence what we do as public sector workers. And I don’t think that any forum should be seen as a safe haven for bald threats such as these.

If it was me and my office being threatened, I can tell you that I would take it as seriously on Facebook as I would on email or from a voicemail. Which is the real harm – that someone on the job is feeling threatened, harassed and ultimately afraid to carry out their work. I’m not sure the medium really matters.

(To be fair to Jesse – who at least always has an interesting opinion – here’s his blog-take on his testimony with corresponding comments following).

One Comment on “A threat is a threat except on Facebook?

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