Gamer Justin Carter’s Attorney Takes Us Inside Contentious Arrest
Saying Things Aloud vs. Posting Them Online: New Territory?
Another issue unearthed by the Carter case is the potential difference between saying something disturbing out loud, verbally (on, say, Xbox Live), versus posting it somewhere on the Internet. For one thing, comments and even threats voiced aloud during verbal conversations don’t have the staying power of written text. Verbal threats in the gaming world tend to vanish into the ether, disappearing as soon as the next multiplayer match begins.
But when words are published on the Internet, they’re out in the wild and vulnerable to all sorts of data surveillance. Screenshots are easy to take, which become image files that can be sent anywhere. And even when forum and social media threads are deleted, they can be retrieved fairly easily.
“We’re in an area of speech, or at least a mode of speech, that has never been — certainly not litigated before — the rules haven’t been drawn,” said Flanary. “So law enforcement is operating on speech protections on the public square, but there’s no law or case law to give them guidance about speech laws on the Internet, on the Cybersquare.”
Constitutional protections of free speech are what kept Washington D.C. Police Officer Christopher Picciano out of hot water after he spoke about killing Michelle Obama to his colleagues during a conversation. As reason.com points out, Picciano made incendiary comments on Facebook as well, but remains free, and is still employed by the D.C. Police Department.
Public Perception of ‘Gamers’
Flanary and Van Brunt also said they thought the public perception of “gamers” may also play a part in Carter’s case, and in elements of the case such as the high amount of his bond.
“Most of [Carter's] free time is spent online and I fear that law enforcement, or the state, is going to try to portray him as some sort of dark person, because he’s playing these games,” Flanary said. “And I fear that they’re going to say, well, because he does this, he’s desensitized to violence. That’s obviously a big issue today and people talk about it. I don’t know, I don’t believe that there’s any research to support the hypothesis that people are any more violent because they play video games.”
Meanwhile, Carter’s release is a first major victory for him and his family, after nearly six months behind bars. But while his release is a serious improvement on his situation, there’s a long road ahead that could eventually lead to a trial.
“What would be the best scenario for Justin? We could do everything we can do to make Justin whole again,” Van Brunt said. “You can’t give him back his time that he’s already been in there. You can’t give him back the hurt that was caused to him while he was in there, in jail. But overall, we’d like to leave his case in a way that saves others, saves Justin, and also gives us an opportunity to redress the things that have happened.”
What’s Next for Justin Carter?
Flanary and Van Brunt said they’re working on Carter’s case pro bono — which means they won’t be paid for their time — because of the constitutional issues involved, as well as to help someone they believe has been wrongly accused. The issues concerning the Sixth Amendment were the lawyers’ first focus.
Apart from Carter’s imprisonment, the case hinges on whether Carter’s speech is protected under the First Amendment. Flanary said it’s possible that the judge on the case could dismiss the charges based on the facts alone, but if Carter does go to trial, the ruling could have far-reaching implications on online speech.
Editor’s Note: This story previously incorrectly asserted that New Braunfels Police interviewed Carter at his home, but court documents obtained later by Game Front show this was not the case. The story also previously stated that the anonymous individual had donated $50,000 to serve as Carter’s bail. That number was erroneous: the individual had in fact donated the full $500,000 bail. The story has been updated with the correct information.
Game Front will be closely following this story as it developers, so stay tuned.