Inflammatory statements on social media are part and parcel of political debate in 2017. However, in some circumstances, they can cross a grey area into potential criminality.
In Texas, a Fort Worth businessman is accused of possible criminality over a Facebook page that took aim at a local police chief.
The Texas Tribune reported how the presidents of the Tarrant County Law Enforcement Association, Arlington Police Association and Dallas Police Association are accusing Bo French of committing a “scandalous crime.” The attack follows the creation of a satirical Facebook page set up in 2016 to criticize Bill Waybourn, a former Dalworthington Gardens Police Chief.
French who is a Texas House hopeful, argued the page “Thief Bill Waybourn,” was a harmless joke. The three North Texas police associations took a different view.
They are calling on the Texas Rangers to investigate what they describe as a “scandalous crime.” That statement said:
“It wasn’t merely a political prank, it potentially was a crime.”
The Tribune reported the page was set up in 2016, taken down and investigated soon afterward.
However, the controversy was only revealed this month as French enters a Republican primary rematch against state Rep. Charlie Geren.
The renewed controversy pits Texas laws on internet abuse and impersonation against the First Amendment right to free speech.
Those making accusations against French said the page may constitute the impersonation of a police officer.
French said that suggestion “is ridiculous and merely political rhetoric.”
Online impersonation may be prosecuted in Texas as either a class A misdemeanor or as a felony. The more serious offense can potentially carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Texas has beefed up its cyber bullying statutes in recent years. It’s an offense to use the name or identity of another individual without their permission online with intent to harm, intimidate or threaten.
However, this law is more typically used in classic cyber bullying situations rather than in political discourse.
The relevant form of communication can be a text message, an instant message, an email, or another communication like a social media site that contains details like a domain address, name, phone number, or other identifying information.
The Tribune report stated it’s not clear how far these accusations might go. The Texas Rangers did not confirm nor deny whether they are taking the issue further.
David Anderson, a law professor and First Amendment expert at the University of Texas, said the Facebook page would not be considered impersonation “unless reasonable people could believe it was really the chief’s page.”
If you are charged with a cyber crime of this nature, it’s important to hire an experienced Dallas criminal defense lawyer to represent you in this complicated area of the law.