Testing the Limits of Free Speech

Video-game trash talk and a “swatting” hoax cost an innocent Kansas man his life in 2017. Now, the person responsible for the prank has been sentenced to 20-years in Federal prison.

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“Free Speech * Conditions Apply” by street artist Fukt. (photo: wiredforlego)

When a fully-armed Wichita Police Department force confronted the man who answered their loud knock on December 28 in 2017, they were expecting someone else. Someone armed, dangerous, and sducidal. Someone who had already taken one life that night. Someone prepared to take more.

The information from a neighbor who called 911, that an armed man had taken hostages and already killed someone at the address, was credible enough to be taken with the gravest of seriousness.

Who would make up something like that?

When the man who answered the door appeared to be reaching toward his waistband for a weapon, police had to make a very difficult choice. Officers shot 28-year old Andrew Finch on the porch of his home. His family members looked on in horror before they, too, were confronted by police, then handcuffed and led from the scene.

Andrew Finch died at the hospital.

Police officers face volatile and dangerous situations all the time. They do their jobs knowing they may someday be killed in the line of duty. They also know that they may only get one opportunity to make a terrible choice, and that they could face this choice at any moment, on any call: Kill or be killed.

If the reportedly armed and murderous suspect is reaching for a weapon, and an officer fails to react, they may never get another chance to take the preemptive shot that would have saved their lives. Or someone else’s.

What’s worse, there is even a common phenomenon known as “suicide by cop” with the understanding that trying to kill an armed and trained person is a sure way to get them to kill you.

People intent on committing suicide by cop aren’t generally concerned about taking police officers with them.

What the responding officers didn’t know that day in Wichita, Kansas; what the police department learned later, was that Andrew Finch hadn’t been the perpetrator of any armed hostage crisis at all.

He had been an innocent victim of a vicious hoax. And so had they.

After an online argument between two parties on a video game chat over a $1.50 bet, one gamer attempted to punish the other using a “swatting” prank, enlisting known swatter Tyler Barriss, 26 to help perpetrate the fraud.

In some way similar to a “bomb threat”, “swatting” involves calling police with a phony tip about an armed hostage crisis situation in progress in an attempt to harass and annoy another party at a particular address.

Neither Barriss nor his gaming accomplice knew the targeted gamer had given a fake address.

The Reckoning

“I hope that this prosecution and lengthy sentence sends a strong message that will put an end to the juvenile and reckless practice of ‘swatting’ within the gaming community, as well as in any other context,” — U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister

Barriss pled guilty to making a false report resulting in death, conspiracy and cyberstalking.

Entitled to Free Speech. And the Consequences of that Speech.

There have historically been limits placed on free speech; lies like libel aren’t protected, obscenity isn’t protected. Though obscenity is more difficult to define than libel, no more so than sedition.

What does free speech mean today? In 2019, sticks and stones can still break bones, but words can provoke a fully armed police response where anything could go wrong. And frequently does.

In such, “swatting” fails the clear and present danger test. It is speech that presents a clear and present threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. As it did for Andrew Finch. It is incitement of a potential criminal act, using an armed police response as a weapon.

Dangerous Ideas

But what happens to people guilty of merely sharing such with others on the internet or in person? Jailing them seems a bit draconian, should they be found guilty of possessing or passing banned content.

However, you can still believe in free speech and believe free speech doesn’t include the right to put lives at risk. We put all kinds of limits on free speech for the purposes of protecting public health and safety already.

A con-man’s right to charm and connive an elderly widow out of the contents of her bank account is not protected. An online video gamer should not be allowed to perpetrate real-life mayhem, even if his only action is typing words into a computer.

A spree-killer should not be given a larger platform for his ideals.

Of the many jobs likely to exist in the future are techno-ethical experts dedicated to determining new parameters for old problems in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world.

And strategies for preventing dangerous words and ideas from costing innocent lives.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)

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