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The Intersection of “Internet Terrorism” and “Individual Privacy” in the Context of the First Amendment

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“Deterring Russia, channeling growing Chinese power, and working with others to dismantle the Islamic State are daunting challenges — but not greater than rebuilding post-World War II Europe, containing the Soviet Union, ending the Cold War, and promoting democratic governance throughout much of the modern world.”[1]

James Dobbins

The “modern world” that Ambassador James Dobbins speaks of has a mounting threat: “Internet Terrorism.” The dawn of the 21st century, coupled with the post 9/11 world in which we live, has completely transformed the way war is waged. Under the First Amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.[2]

The Internet is a platform used to express opinions, share ideas, and absorb information. However, it has become weaponized to perpetuate radicalism, violence, and instability. Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency have listed “Terrorism” and “Cyber Warfare” as the top two threats to our Nation’s security. We are living in a digital age where culture is shaped by the media through the utilization of the Internet. It is an intangible infrastructure where ideas, beliefs, thoughts, and opinions are shared, debated, criticized, tweeted, hash-tagged, posted, and commented on. How do we, as a country, combat the threats of “Terrorism” and “Cyber Warfare,” while continuing to preserve the life, liberty and property of the American people as protected by the Constitution?

The United States Constitution does not explicitly define privacy as a right to the people, however the Supreme Court has historically handed down decisions that suggest a broader reading of the Constitution: one which protects an individual’s rights to privacy and free speech. In the June 2015 Supreme Court Decision, Anthony Douglas Elonis v. United States, the court undertook, for the first time, a case that considers threats and the limits of free speech in the context of the internet. The court had the opinion that:

Federal law makes it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.” 18 U. S. C. §875(c). Petitioner was convicted of violating this provision under instructions that required the jury to find that he communicated what a reasonable person would regard as a threat. The question is whether the statute also requires that the defendant be aware of the threatening nature of the communication, and—if not—whether the First Amendment requires such a showing.[3]

Presently, the First Amendment is at a severe crossroads in the context of freedom of speech and the perpetuation of violence through Internet discord. Terrorism,” and cyber attacks via the Internet, are growing dangers to our Nations security.

An example of this multifaceted paradigm is the arrests of United States citizens charged with “terrorism-related crimes, including two Queens women who allegedly discussed making bomb with an undercover federal agent…and a Texas man…[who] was charged separately with seeking to train alongside Muslim militants who allegedly plotted to attack New York City subways.”[4] According to an April 2015 article in Bloomberg: “U.S. prosecutors announced charges against a Philadelphia woman, Keonna Thomas, accused of attempting to join Islamic State. The government said she posted items expressing support for the group on Twitter, and communicated online with a Somalia-based jihadi fighter from Minnesota, a radical Islamic cleric and an ISIS fighter in Syria.”[5] Going forward, National Security law will play a crucial role in shaping the gray line between an individual’s freedom of speech and the profound use of the internet to spread violent extremism. Does the First Amendment inexplicably safeguard an individual’s rights to privacy through the milieu of free speech, or does the digital age in which we live redefine its meaning?

 

[1] James Dobbins, Reports of Global Disorder Have Been Greatly Exaggerated, Foreign Policy (July 22, 2015), http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/07/22/reports-of-our-global-disorder-have-been-greatly-exaggerated-russia-china-us-leadership/.  

[2] U.S. Const. amend. I

[3] Elonis v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2001 (2015)

[4] Christie Smythe, U.S. Citizens Swept Up in N.Y., Philadelphia Terrorism Arrests, Bloomberg Business (April 3, 2015) http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-04-02/two-new-york-women-charged-by-u-s-in-alleged-terrorist-plot.

[5] Id.

 


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