“Twitter Jail”—Oregon style

In order to defeat spammers and to save their servers from being overloaded, Twitter sometimes temporarily suspends an account from further posting for a short period of time—usually under a couple hours. To get thrown in this “Twitter Jail,” as it’s known, you have to send over 100 tweets/hour or 1,000/day.

Recently the Oregon State legislature introduced—and, for now, killed—Senate Bill 1534, a bill that would have put most of us in actual jail for sending ONE tweet if the content involved soliciting “two or more persons to commit a specific crime at a specific time and location.” The crime you would be charged with under this law is “aggravated solicitation.”

Three key sections from the proposed law:

(2) A person commits the crime of aggravated solicitation if,
with the intent of causing two or more other persons to engage in
specific conduct constituting a crime, the person uses an
electronic communication to command or solicit other persons to
engage in that conduct at a specific time and at a specific
location.

(3) In a prosecution under this section, the state need not
prove that the electronic communication was received by specific
persons or that the defendant intended for specific persons to
engage in the criminal activity.

(4) Aggravated solicitation is a:
(a) Class A felony if the offense solicited is a Class A felony
or is murder or treason.
(b) Class B felony if the offense solicited is a Class B
felony.
(c) Class C felony if the offense solicited is a misdemeanor or
a Class C felony.

Some lawyers may want to weigh in here, but my reading is that no crime has to actually be committed as a result of your “solicitation.” Send a tweet, text or Facebook post suggesting a misdemeanor sit-in and you’re guilty of aggravated solicitation, a Class C felony, even if no one took you up on your call. Class C felonies in Oregon are punishable by a fine of up to $125,000 and a prison term of up to 5 years.

Further, if committing a Class A or Class B felony were suggested in your communication, you could likewise be charged with a Class A or Class B felony, even if it never happened. Class A felonies in Oregon are punishable by up to 20 years in prison and $375,000 in fines. And the State doesn’t even need to prove that the person who actually committed the Class A/B/C felony or misdemeanor even received your tweet or read your blog post.

As an example of what could happen, if you send out a tweet or Facebook update or blog post encouraging people to assemble at a certain park at a certain time for a sit-in and in the process some violent wingnut throws a bottle and hurts someone or lights something on fire, you could be charged with a Class A or B felony.

The Twitter Prison law would go far beyond existing conspiracy laws in Oregon, where the people doing the conspiring have to agree “to engage in or cause the performance of such conduct.” In the proposed new statute, no one has to agree and no proof is required that anyone even saw your post. In neither case does any crime have to actually be committed, but under the Twitter Prison law, solicitation to commit a minor misdemeanor is punishable as a felony, whereas under conspiracy, the severity of the charge is equal to the severity of the crime conspired about. (I.e. conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor is in itself only a misdemeanor.)

It’s tempting to dismiss these fears as exaggerated, to say that prosecutors would never actually use the law in such an extreme fashion for something as simple as nonviolent Occupy actions or environmental protests, now mainstays of the Oregon political scene. Further, how would they even decide whom to charge when hundreds or thousands of people retweeted a call-to-action tweet or text?

Anyone who has been around activism for long enough knows someone who has been ensnared in an obscure law, applied in an extreme manner. As one example, after a recent police raid on Occupy Oakland’s vigil in front of City Hall, two people allegedly tried to effect their own unarrest and were charged with “lynching,” a felony. Anti-lynching laws were originally designed to prevent racist mobs from hijacking prisoners from the custody of law enforcement officers and enacting their own vigilante justice. Lynching is now a legal synonym for consensually “unarresting” someone. (By the way, if you try to get away—i.e. unarrest yourself—you can be charged with “lynching” yourself in California.)

While it would be impractical to arrest, try and jail everyone who retweets a call-to-action, it would be an easy way to shut down organizers and influential online activists and chill the activity of others. Even if, in the long run, the law were deemed unconstitutional (likely), it could still cause major sabotage of organizing efforts in the meantime.

What strikes me as the most creepy part of this proposed law is that it was introduced in Oregon! Not Egypt or Syria or even some troglodyte Southern state, but friendly, progressive Oregon. We’ve got to be intensely vigilant, throwing the full weight of online and on-the-ground activism at any future attempts to stifle free speech and our ability to organize freely.

Below is the list of shameful Oregon Senators who signed on to the Twitter Prison bill:
WHITSETT, ATKINSON, FERRIOLI, GEORGE, JOHNSON, KRUSE, MORSE, OLSEN, STARR, TELFER, VERGER,
WINTERS.

These people should hear from Oregon citizens, so I hereby encourage all of you to go to their offices next Monday at 9am and commit a misdemeanor nonviolent sit-in in protest. Please repost this. Before it becomes a felony to do so.

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