Can You Be Prosecuted For “Inappropriate” Things You Say Online?
Do you treat Google as a confessional or a digital counter spy? If someone stumbled upon your private searches, would they think: “Dear Authorities: I have convincing proof that the hybrid of Patrick Bateman and Omen Damien now walks among us. Can you get on that, quickly? K? Thanks. Signed, Everyone Ever.”
In our digital world, where is line between “deviant fantasy” and “attempted criminality”? A post-modern meditation on free speech and individual freedom, HBO’s new documentary, Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, forces each of us to consider our relationship with the swami search engine, Google. The film begs us to debate questions like:
- Should online searches be a factor in harassment and other criminal cases?
- Can you be prosecuted for things you say online?
- Can you be prosecuted for things you say on a “fantasy forum”?
- Is there a right answer?
Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop: A Summary
HBO (now also known as: high-brow Court TV) debuted another true crime documentary that will leave you disturbed for days. Entitled Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop, the film lures you into the world of Gilberto Valle, a cop-turned-convict whose “fantasies” veered in the yikes-omgwtf direction.
Bottom Line: Gilberto Valle was a New York State police officer who spent off duty time trolling the darkest parts of the Web. Parts where men talked about kidnapping, raping, and then eating women. Yes, Valle was allegedly an active member of a purported online cannibal community.
When Online Talk Starts Getting Real
Eventually, Valle started chatting with another user; talked turned to taking their fantasies AFK. Around this time, Valle allegedly accessed a police database to gather personal information about a woman he mentioned in his “cannibal chat community.” Obviously, this was a big no no.
Investigation & Arrest
In time, Valle’s wife uncovered his secret; she ran to authorities. Law enforcement investigated, unearthed Valle’s online cannibal activity, and discovered his questionable access of police records.
In 2013, police arrested Valle. A jury found him guilty of kidnapping conspiracy; he served a year behind bars; then, a judge overturned the guilty verdict.
Can You Be Prosecuted For Things You Say Online?
Sure, the film is a bit salacious, snarky, and sometimes cringe-worthy, but Thought Crimes is more than mindless true crime fodder. It’s a brain teaser that delves into the philosophical and legal quagmire stewed by the 21st century. Should online searches ever be admissible evidence? What level of criminal intention can a Google search legally convey?
Throughout the documentary, Valle’s mindset is poked and probed – by the filmmakers and us, the audience. The film juxtaposes his conversations about cannibalism with videos of him eating or cooking. We jump to conclusions, only to have those suppositions questioned a frame later. We waiver between two poles: Were Valle’s actions simply, as he insists, an online-only “sick fantasy”? Or did the prosecutors have it right, and use next-level police work to stop a violent criminal before he took his “sick fantasies” to actual streets?
A Minority Report Warning?
In retrospect, perhaps the only message Thought Crimes makes clear it is this:
Be careful what you search for online. Very careful. Because Phillip K. Dick’s prescient Minority Report seems to be playing out right before our very eyes — and “PreCrime” seems to be a real thing.
Kelly / Warner: The Digital Communication Litigation
Kelly / Warner is an internet law firm with a team of attorneys that concentrates on legalities affecting digital communications. To learn more about our firm, please head here. If you’re primarily interested in our online speech litigation practice, please go here.
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