OFFBEAT: Free to speak

Assistant news editor, Sandusky Register We all know it's probably not a great idea to gripe about y
Annie Zelm
May 13, 2010

Assistant news editor, Sandusky Register

We all know it's probably not a great idea to gripe about your boss on Facebook or MySpace. And incriminating photos of that "lost weekend" in Windsor might even cost you a job.

In an age where every juicy tidbit we put out about ourselves could come back to haunt us, we have to manage our online image carefully.

That's just common sense.

But I'm sure most of us don't consider the personal opinions we post could be prosecuted.

That's probably why 23-year-old Shaun Harder didn't think twice when venting about the Arabian Rescue Mission, the rescue group still squaring off with the humane society over what's best for the 36 horses rescued from an Oak Harbor farm.

The Elmore police officer pleaded not guilty Monday to a misdemeanor charge of aggravated menacing for posting a Facebook message that said, "the horses need (people) like us; the Arabian rescue group needs to be slaughtered like livestock."

It's a graphic image. But in no way does it suggest a plot to sneak onto the rescue mission's quarters with a meat cleaver. If I called police every time a Register commenter or caller advocated crucifying our controversial managing editor, we'll, let's just say it'd be tough to get the paper out in time every night.

In fact, the Facebook post is no worse than many of the comments we see daily (and leave up) on our Web site. When it comes to perceived menacing, our paper's policy is to remove only those comments that directly threaten to harm another person or their family -- i.e., "Robin Hood, I know where you live and I WILL break into your house to slash you (and those hideous tights) if you don't stop spreading your socialist agenda."

The Ohio Revised Code defines aggravated menacing as knowingly causing another "to believe that the offender will cause serious physical harm to the person or property of the other person, the other person's unborn, or a member of the other person's immediate family."

In most cases, I do believe public officials should be held to a higher standard in their personal lives. And Harder had apparently been in trouble before -- he's been suspended since December for an unrelated matter.

Regardless of what happened last year, we're still talking about a young man, barely out of the police academy, sharing thoughts that should be protected by the First Amendment. Yes, it was in poor taste, but it shouldn't have landed him in jail or warranted an FBI investigation. He was merely expressing his frustration with a group that from the beginning has criticized the humane society and local officials for the way they've handled the situation. It wasn't enough for this rescue group to know that the horses were being fed and cared for by around-the-clock volunteers; they started pointing fingers at the humane society because one of the horses was colicky and another wore a blanket that was a bit too big.

Our readers seem to agree Harder shouldn't have been charged. According to an informal online poll, 52 percent of the 173 people who responded said the posting was "bad judgment, but not criminal." Another 24 percent said it's "just free speech."

Only 9 percent said they'd classify it as hate speech, and 13 percent said it was an incitement to violence. A few others said it depends on whether specific persons were targeted.

Cases like this are cropping up everywhere.

A South Florida teenager is suing her former principal after she was suspended for creating a Facebook page criticizing her teacher.

The student, Katherine Evans, hopes to have her 3-day suspension expunged from her record, according to the Associated Press. A federal judge recently ruled she can continue with the lawsuit.

Evans created a Facebook page titled "Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I've ever had."

And in North Carolina, a middle-school teacher was suspended after posting angry comments about her Christian students on her Facebook page. When students placed a Bible on her desk, she referred to the act as a "hate crime."

Another case calls attention to other constitutional rights. A Wisconsin school district placed a middle school teacher on administrative leave because she posted a photo of herself pointing a gun at the camera.

So where does this cyber-snooping in the name of political correctness end?

Even users whose pages were set to "private" so only select friends could view them have found themselves caught up in tangled webs over a comment taken too literally or a photo used out of context.

If I cry foul in the middle of cyberspace and someone overhears, could I go to jail?

I'm not sure I want to find out.

Annie Zelm is the assistant news editor of the Sandusky Register.