One night last summer, Jarvis Britton, of Birmingham, Ala., sent out a series of Twitter messages that he later described as “stupid” jokes. Prosecutors did not think they were funny.
“Let’s Go Kill the President,” wrote Britton, who is 26 and unemployed. “I think we could get the president with cyanide! #MakeItSlow.”
When Secret Service agents showed up at his house to question him, Britton said he had been drunk and apologized. In September, however, he posted another round of death threats against President Barack Obama and was arrested. Last month, he was sentenced to a year in federal prison.
“Because of the repeated threats on Twitter, we took him seriously,” said Joyce White Vance, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, who prosecuted the case.
Britton was the latest in a recent series of social media users to overstep the boundary of legal free speech and face jail time for threatening the president’s life. Last month, a Twitter user in Charlotte, N.C., Donte Jamar Sims, was sentenced to six months for posting “Ima assassinate president Obama this evening!” among other threats. And Daniel Temple, of Columbus, Ohio, is awaiting sentencing for saying on Twitter that he was “coming to kill” the president and “killing you soon.”
A Secret Service spokesman, Brian Leary, said social media are increasingly useful for finding and tracking threats.
In 2011, the agency created the SecretService account, to let users report suspicious tweets. And a group of agents, called the Internet Threat Desk, focuses specifically on threats posted online.
“We get information from many sources. Social media is one of them,” Leary said. “We have the right and certainly the obligation to determine a person’s intent.”
The Secret Service investigates an average of 10 threats against Obama each day, roughly the same number as during George W. Bush’s administration, said Ronald Kessler, author of “In the President’s Secret Service,” a book about the agency. The agency would not confirm that number and does not say how many threats it receives and turns over to the Justice Department to prosecute.
But privacy advocates worry that remarks intended for friends and followers may be misinterpreted in a courtroom or that carelessly typed posts will be seen in the same light as letters mailed to the White House.
“Twitter makes it easier for people to say things they don’t mean seriously and be broadcast far and wide,” said Hanni Fakhoury, a staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy advocacy group. “If I say online that I want to kill Obama, it’s far harder to assess how serious I am than if I’m standing across the street from the White House and I have a gun.”
Federal law makes it punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine to threaten the life of the president or anyone else under Secret Service protection. The law does not require proof that the suspect intended to carry out the plot.
Vance, the prosecutor, said the case against Britton was clear-cut: He had posted two rounds of threatening messages and ignored the Secret Service’s initial warning.
Britton, who is in prison, could not be reached. But his lawyer, Rick Burgess, said Britton had no plans to harm the president. Court records show that Britton has received medication for schizophrenia.
A spokeswoman for Twitter did not reply to requests for comment about whether the company removes death threats from the site or provides the Secret Service personal information about users accused of threatening the president. Court records show that, in Britton’s case, a woman saw his messages and alerted the Secret Service, and agents found his home address.
The Justice Department does not say how many threats against the president have been prosecuted, according to a spokesman.
Last year, a college student in Florida said he was joking when he posted on Facebook about killing the president during a trip to the University of Miami. “Who wants to help me assassinate Obummer while hes at UM this week?” the student, Joaquin Serrapio, asked. He later was charged with threatening to harm the president, a felony. He pleaded guilty and received three years’ probation.
In another case, Walter Bagdasarian, of San Diego, said he was drunk when he posted a rant on his blog saying the president “will have a 50 cal in the head soon,” referring to a .50-caliber rifle bullet. In federal court, he won an appeal by arguing that his comment stopped short of being a threat.
The cases based on such threats should be a reminder that there are limits on the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, said Burgess, the defense lawyer. “Whether you meant it as a joke or not,” he said, “a Twitter message takes on a whole new meaning when it’s read in a courtroom.”