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As Supreme Court Considers Online Threats, An Update On Justin Carter

An undated photo of Justin Carter, who's facing a felony "terroristic threat" charge in Texas.
Courtesy of Jack Carter
An undated photo of Justin Carter, who's facing a felony "terroristic threat" charge in Texas.

The Supreme Court is tackling an interesting question Monday: When is a seemingly threatening online message a crime?

While the case before the court is about a Pennsylvania man who posted threats of domestic violence after his wife left him, the core question of what kind of online speech constitutes a "true threat" could just as easily be applied to the case of Justin Carter.

Nearly two years after the inciting incident, Texas gamer Justin Carter is still awaiting trial on charges of "terroristic threats." Police charged him after what his parents call a sarcastic comment he made on Facebook while playing League of Legends. He's out on a $500,000 bail (posted by an anonymous donor) as he awaits trial, a trial that's yet to happen despite a swirl of attention over Carter's original arrest and jailing by Texas authorities.

While in jail for four months, his father told NPR, Carter was physically abused and had to be put in solitary confinement for his own safety. He publicly apologized for his comments when he was released, saying "I certainly would have thought a lot more about what I said. ... People should be very careful about what they say" on social media sites.

All of it started in February 2013, when the then 18-year-old got into a verbal exchange with another League of Legends player, who suggested he was dangerous or crazy. He responded, "I'm f- - - - - in the head alright, I think I'ma SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN [...] AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT RAIN DOWN [...] AND EAT THE BEATING HEART OF ONE OF THEM."

It was just months after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, so a Canadian woman who saw the exchange took a screen grab and sent it to Texas authorities, who arrested Carter and put him in jail.

Now, as his pro-bono attorney continues pressing to get the charges dismissed, Comal County, Texas, prosecutors are proceeding toward trial. The county clerk's office says another pre-trial hearing is set for Jan. 8, and the charge of "terroristic threat" remains the same. Carter is required to appear in court.

Where is he while he waits? The Austin Chronicle reported that he's definitely not on the Internet:

" ... the conditions of his bond prevent him from living with anyone under the age of 18, even his two siblings. Additionally, he can't be within a thousand feet of any place children may gather, nor can he use the Internet, so he's been unable to find a job."

His mother, Jennifer Carter, told the Chronicle:

"Every hearing, we hope that it's going to be the one where they go, 'The case is dismissed,' or 'We're not going to pursue charges.' But it just keeps going on."

Carter's attorney, Don Flanary, said:

"Prior to [Carter's] arrest, I was optimistic that [a case like] this wouldn't happen. Then when I got on the case, I was optimistic that, in a matter of days, it would be dismissed, because it's so stupid. Then after months went on, I was optimistic that after they see us fighting and they see all this press — bad press — that they're going to say, 'This is just dumb, and we're going to stop.' That didn't happen. So, am I optimistic that the judge will do the right thing? Sure. But the reality is, we are prepared to go to the highest court in the land, and, if we have to, we will."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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