A Methuen Teen’s Facebook Status Has Kept Him in Jail for Three Weeks
When 18-year-old Methuen High student Cameron D’Ambrosio was arrested for posting rap lyrics to his Facebook that implied he wanted to outdo the Boston Marathon bombers, some complained that the charges against him— “communicating terrorist threats,” according to Methuen Police, a crime that carries a potential 20 year sentence—were too harsh, an example of government overreach in the emotional time after an actual terrorist attack.
Now that D’Ambrosio’s been sitting in jail for nearly a month, those complaints are getting louder. An online petition organized by Center for Rights and Fight for the Future, sister organizations concerned with internet freedom, has gone viral in the past several days, with over 55,000 digital signatures calling for his release to his family, according to Evan Greer, the petition’s campaign manager.
There’s no doubt that D’Ambrosio is at the least guilty of exercising seriously terrible judgement. D’Ambrosio, who regularly posts video and lyrics of his raps, was arrested on May 1 after he posted these lyrics to his Facebook:
I’m not in reality, So when u see me [bleeping] go insane and make the news, the paper, and the [bleeping] federal house of horror known as the white house, Don’t [bleeping] cry or be worried because all YOU people [bleeping] caused this [bleep].
[Bleep] a boston bominb wait till u see the [bleep] I do, I’ma be famous rapping, and beat every murder charge that comes across me!
In the wake of a seemingly random act of mass terrorism in Boston, it’s easy to understand why police might have considered that Facebook post worthy of follow-up.
But D’Ambrosio’s defenders argue that his words were artistic, that they’re just an example of an aspiring rapper’s braggadocio, and therefore, that they’re protected free speech. They also complain that his lengthy imprisonment while he awaits the chance to make his case constitutes an excessive punishment in itself. So far, they say, police haven’t produced any more evidence that D’Ambrosio intended to act on his speech. That makes it unreasonable, his defenders say, for the government to keep him imprisoned for months while he waits to make that case in court.
A judge, at least, seemed to think there was enough danger to keep D’Ambrosio incarcerated. On May 9, the judge demanded that he be held without bail until another hearing, though police testified that they hadn’t found weapons or other evidence that he was planning violence. D’Ambrosio and his lawyer appeared in Salem Superior Court Thursday morning for a bail review hearing, where a different judge heard his lawyer’s argument that D’Ambrosio should be released to his family, who appeared at the hearing too. His lawyer suggested conditions, like a GPS tracker and no computer access, that would ensure the community’s safety. That judge’s decision is expected within a few days, according to Greer. (Update: Since this post, the judge ruled to deny D’Ambrosio bail, Reuters reports.)
D’Ambrosio’s case seems to come down to how a reasonable person might interpret the intention behind the speech in question—as a threat or as a form of artistic expression without any real world intentions behind it.
Boston College Law Professor Kent Greenfield says the fact that the words in question came in the form a rap song doesn’t itself give them First Amendment protection. “The fact that it’s in music doesn’t cleanse it from intent or from communicating a willfulness to harm someone else,” he said, but it may provide his lawyer evidence that D’Ambrosio was simply working within a musical tradition that suggests there wasn’t any real world intention behind the words.
What seems clear is that regardless of whether the government should respond to a Facebook status by imprisoning someone for months before he makes his defense, a legal adult should know that these days, it certainly might.
“There’s every incentive these days to take these things seriously,” Greenfield says. “I think there’s a risk in moments where people are worried about their security that civil liberties, especially freedom of speech, get eroded … But I think people need to understand that even if they have a valid First Amendment argument, the First Amendment argument might not help them in the first 30 days.”