September 19, 2012
One of the unexpected byproducts of the everyone-can-comment-on-everything mantra of the Internet is that we can see how ill-informed, heartless and just plain stupid much of humanity can be. Take, for instance, the story of an ESPN.com commenter who decided it was a good idea to write a threat to kill children. Appearing in the comments of a story about LeBron James' new $270 sneakers, the threat grabbed the attention of a website moderator. One phone call to the police later, and boom: a 21-year-old former Yale student named Eric Yee found himself arrested and held on a monumental bond.
"What he was posting had nothing to do with sports," ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said. "We closely monitor the message boards and anytime we get a threat, we're alerting law enforcement officials."
Police tracked the posting to a home in Santa Clarita, California where Yee lives with his parents. After surveillance, he was arrested and held on a $1 million bond. While the amount of bond was unusually high, police noted that some of the threats referenced this summer's Aurora, Colorado shootings, and that Yee's parents' home overlooks both an elementary and a middle school. That's a bad combination from a threat perspective.
Sure, there will be those who scream that this is a violation of free speech, but anyone who says that has about as much understanding of free speech as they do of quantum physics. First off, the comments were made in ESPN's private property, which means ESPN does indeed have the right to regulate them. Second, "free speech" doesn't cover inflammatory speech -- shouting "fire!" in a crowded theater, making jokes about bombs in an airport security line, threatening to kill the president ... or announcing plans to shoot kids. Finally, even if your speech doesn't fall under those restrictions, "free speech" doesn't mean "freedom from consequences for your speech." Say what you want, but don't be surprised if someone disagrees with you.
Certainly, there's a slippery slope here; already, some newspapers are deleting negative comments about their work, which is an overreaction and, frankly, pretty cowardly too. But there is a line, one that's not hard to see, and it's a fairly simple one: you're responsible for what you say. If you can't handle the blowback, don't go throwing bombs in print.