New York Appeals Court Effectively Rules That Individuals Cannot Be Prosecuted for What They Post On Social Media
In April, a New York appeals court made an important decision reversing a conviction of the crime of falsely reporting an incident in third degree based on First Amendment free-speech rights. In doing so, the court effectively ruled that the state’s law on false reporting of crimes cannot be used to prosecute individuals for posting allegedly false information on social media.
The decision was connected to an incident involving a fight that broke out on a bus. Although there are a number of different accounts of what happened during the incident, ultimately, one individual who identified herself as a victim called 911 and reported that she was jumped on the bus by a group of men, assaulted, and called the “N” word. She also proceeded to post on social media that she had been the victim of a racially-motivated assault on the bus.
New York Law & Jury Verdict
For reasons that were not made clear in the appellate division’s decision, police and prosecutors chose to charge this victim who reported the crime with assault in third degree, falsely reporting an incident in the third degree, and harassment in the second degree. New York law dictates that an individual can be found guilty of falsely reporting an incident in the third degree when they circulate a false report of a crime under which it is not unlikely that an inconvenience or public alarm will result and they know that the information is false. The defendant was ultimately convicted of two counts of falsely reporting an incident in the third degree by a jury.
The Appellate Division Decision
The appellate court is not empowered to decide whether the jury did the right thing, but rather, must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the people – i.e. the prosecution – and determine whether there is any line of reasoning that could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by the jury. The court found that the verdict was supported by legally-sufficient evidence and did not contradict the weight of the evidence. However, it also stated that “a different verdict would not have been unreasonable,” as the jury simply could have believed the defendant’s version of the events.
Most importantly, the court agreed with the defendant that the law, as applied, was unconstitutional, as the government did not meet its burden to justify restrictions on protected speech (which is protected even if it is false). Specifically, the court found that the statute is impermissibly broad in terms of applying to the type of speech that appears on social media (in this case, Twitter) and, therefore, the speech (i.e. what she posted on social media) cannot be criminalized.
Importance Of Decision: People Cannot Be Prosecuted For What They Post On Social Media
What is especially important about this decision is that the court implies that social media can never rise to the level of causing public alarm and thus criminal liability; not only because criminalizing false speech requires proof of specific harm to identifiable victims or a great likelihood of harm; but also because social media simply involves online discussion, whereby, by its very nature, any falsehoods can be quickly cleared up and countered, making any criminalization of speech on social media completely unnecessary to prevent inconvenience and alarm.
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