By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – Appalling, disgusting, abhorrent, hateful, nasty, racist – one could easily run out of derogatory adjectives to describe some of the tweets that rolled in when Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban scored the game-winning goal Thursday night.
Twitter users, presumably Boston Bruins fans, blew up the social media site following the team’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens, with insult after insult hurled at one of the few black players in professional hockey. Many of the Tweets were racist.
One particularly chilling post appeared to come from a young woman. She wrote, “Tied something for SUBBAN” and put up a picture of a noose. After her message, she put a smiley face.
Welcome to the zero-accountability world of the Internet.
“Is it a hate crime to threaten someone with a noose? Yes it is,” WWJ legal analyst Charlie Langton said. “And it would be illegal other[wise], but prosecutors rarely prosecute – and probably can’t prosecute – because of the uncertainty of the Internet and the lack of proof. You can’t prove who did it. That’s the practical problem.”
The Michigan law defining hate crime – listed as ethnic intimidation – reads as follows.
(1) A person is guilty of ethnic intimidation if that person maliciously, and with specific intent to intimidate or harass another person because of that person’s race, color, religion, gender, or national origin, does any of the following:
(a) Causes physical contact with another person.
(b) Damages, destroys, or defaces any real or personal property of another person.
(c) Threatens, by word or act, to do an act described in subdivision (a) or (b), if there is reasonable cause to believe that an act described in subdivision (a) or (b) will occur.
Ethnic intimidation is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison, per the statute.
In other words, a threat combined with a racial slur is a hate crime. A fan who yells, “You’re a no-good (slur). (Slur) don’t belong in hockey,” does not commit a hate crime. A fan who yells, “I’m going to kick your ass, (slur),” does.
“The hate crime statute in Michigan is pretty loose,” Langton said. “If I just made a slur, a racial slur, even in conversation, that’s taken as a racial slur – it’s got to be harassing – then yes, that would be a – theoretically, that would be a hate crime, sure. They’re written loosely so that the prosecutor has a lot of discretion in charging someone.
“Usually they involve a fight,” Langton added. “Usually there’s something else in there, but the way that the law is written, any racial slur is a hate crime.”
Does an online threat fall in the same category as face-to-face intimation or harassment in some more traditional way – on the phone, in a note or an email? Eventually the courts may have to decide.
Last October, New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs evidently took death threats on Twitter aimed at him and his family seriously enough to call out the person posting. The NFL took the comments seriously enough to have security personnel look into the matter.
For the most part, however, it does not look like those posting horribly offensive comments on Twitter will be punished – aside from perhaps getting exposed by screenshots or the retweets of a journalist – any time soon. For now, public shaming will likely be the only repercussion for the fan who posted the picture of a noose and designated it for Subban.
“The practical problem is that prosecuting somebody for writing something on Twitter or Facebook or something like that is almost impossible, and it’s rarely, if ever, done,” Langton said. “That’s the problem. So unless you have an audio tape, a video tape or a witness that said, ‘I heard a racial slur,’ it’s probably not going to be prosecuted.”