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Obama threat investigation: 16-year-old's tweet asks for someone to "assassinate Obama"

8:00 AM, Sep 12, 2012   |    comments
President Obama. (Courtesy: Getty Images)
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By Shauna Steigerwald, Cincinnati.com 

Here's how to get in trouble in 140 characters or fewer.

Alyssa Douglas, a high school girl from the Clarksville area, about 40 miles north and east of Cincinnati, appears to have sent out a tweet Thursday night, hours before President Barack Obama's convention speech, saying: "Someone needs to assassinate Obama ... like ASAP."

The Secret Service is investigating the posting on Twitter as a potential threat and will report its findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Ohio.

Clinton-Massie School District officials had a meeting with Douglas and her parents Friday morning.

Perhaps it was a real threat. If that was the case, the legal consequences would likely be dire.

Or perhaps it was simply the unconsidered words of a teenager with easy access to social media. If that was the case, the consequences may still be significant.

Douglas' name spread across the Internet, as bloggers and tweeters discussed broad issues like free speech and hate and race and political extremism.

By 4 p.m. Friday, the name "Alyssa Douglas" combined with "assassination" resulted in 2,010 Google hits.

The Secret Service took the threat seriously. Mark Porter, special agent in charge at the Cincinnati Field Office, said the agency investigates all threats, including ones made on social media.

Porter said the local office investigates social media threats with some regularity: "Maybe a couple a month," Porter said.

A statement like this, which calls for an assassination, was also passed up the chain to the Secret Service's Intelligence Division.

Porter would not speculate as to whether this would ultimately be considered a viable threat to the president. "We are fully investigating it," Porter said. "What will the outcome be? We'll just have to wait and see."

Threats against the president are illegal under a specific federal statute punishable by a fine, up to five years in prison or both.

Kelley Johnson is a former federal public defender and is now a partner at the law firm of Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. He says the line between free speech and illegal threats is sometimes clear.

It is fine for a person to say they hate the president. It is not fine to say he should be assassinated.

"The borderline is probably: 'I wish the president would die,'" Johnson said. "That is probably the gray area."

Mike Sander, superintendent of the Clinton-Massie Local School District, met with Douglas and her parents early Friday.

"The parents were not aware of it," Sander said. He said he explained to Douglas that "there are limits to the rights of free speech."

Sanders told Douglas that something like this could hurt her in college applications or job searches or in the pursuit of scholarships.

"But 16 year-olds don't think that way," Sanders said.

Jeffrey Blevins, head of the University of Cincinnati's Department of Journalism and an expert in new media, said the incident highlights the need for more media education.

"These things are so readily available to young people; they don't fully understand the consequences of what they say. It's not just a snide comment to a couple of their friends, where the friends can read that remark in context. Instead, that comment goes out to the entire Twitter universe, and you lose control of it.

"That concept is very difficult for young people - and even some adults - to understand," he added.

Communication with kids is key to helping them avoid potentially costly new media mistakes, Blevins said.

"One of the worst things you could probably do is to forbid it," he said. "They're going to access it anyway."

Instead, Blevins recommends that parents stay abreast of their children's online activities, demanding password access to their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts. And talk to them about being careful what they say, sharing stories such as this one.

Clinton-Massie High School is carved out of a former cornfield. Tall stalks grow right at the edge of the parking lot. Friday afternoon, at the end of the school day, there was a pep rally for the evening's big football game against Jonathan Alder High School.

Sanders said he could not comment on whether Douglas had any prior discipline trouble at the school. He could not say if she was a good student. But he did offer this: "I can tell you that all of the teachers who know Ms. Douglas were very surprised."

Cincinnati.com

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