Freedom of speech is guaranteed to all U.S. citizens by the First Amendment to our Constitution. In a very basic nutshell, it allows us to criticize our government, or espouse a love of communism, or advocate for the legalization of marijuana, and so on, without being persecuted or jailed for publicly holding those beliefs.
It does not guarantee you the right, however, to say absolutely anything you want without legal consequences, both civil and criminal.
The classic example often given is that your First Amendment rights do not protect you from being prosecuted if you shout "fire" in a crowded theater when there is no fire and your action results in a panic that either causes injury to others or could cause possible injury.
And that describes the dilemma Caleb Jamaal Clemmons reportedly created for himself in February. On his Tumblr blog, Clemmons posted under his Tumblr name "irenigg" the following: "hello. my name is irenigg and i plan on shooting up georgia southern. pass this around to see the affect it has. to see if i get arrested."
Georgia Southern University police helped Clemmons accomplish his mission, arresting him less than three hours after his post. He was charged with making terroristic threats, and his public defender said he could face up to five years in prison.
Looking at some of his other Tumblr posts, Clemmons definitely says things to get a reaction from his readers. A psychology major, perhaps that was his goal. But posting a threat to shoot up Georgia Southern, even though you have no intention of doing it, and doing so less than two months after the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, is the equivalent of yelling about a non-existent fire in a crowded theater.
Clemmons made himself a target for legal consequences for what he believed, it seems, was a social media experiment to gauge a reaction. Bond was set at $20,000 after his Feb. 7 arrest, but his family couldn't raise the $5,000 needed to bond him out. So, Clemmons spent more than six months in the Bulloch County Jail before he was released Tuesday under a plea agreement.
In their investigation, police discovered no weapons in his apartment or signs of any plot of an attack on Georgia Southern. It's safe to say no one really believes Clemmons had any real intention of shooting anything or anybody.
Back in September 2010, a man by the name of Eric Pringle moved to an apartment complex across the street from Georgia Southern. On his personal Facebook site, Pringle posted some veiled threats about an attack against the Georgia Southern campus and a video that was pretty scary. All this was discovered after Pringle shot a Statesboro police officer and then subsequently was killed in a shootout with other officers.
Pringle was not a student at GSU and had no friends in the Statesboro area. So, prior to the confrontation, Pringle's threats were relatively unknown and none were reported to the police. Would Pringle have actually carried out an attack at the university? While it's only possible to speculate, the incident he initiated that ended in his death certainly indicates he was capable of extreme violence.
Again, authorities do not believe Clemmons truly was planning an attack, but when they received reports of the threat he made on his public Tumblr site, they had to take it seriously, as they do all threats. We would consider it irresponsible if they didn't.
Clemmons was in court Tuesday where he worked out a plea deal with Ogeechee Judicial Circuit prosecutors. The deal allows Clemmons to go home and I hope reorganize his life. Six months in jail is enough punishment for simple stupidity.
And what happened to Clemmons can be a reminder to all of us that while we are free to say, or post, whatever we want, freedom of speech does not guarantee us freedom from consequences for that speech.
James Healy is operations manager of the Statesboro Herald and may be reached at 489-9402.