Special Report: Free Social Speech

Whether it be on a computer, a tablet, or a smart phone, millions of people everywhere are staying connected through sites like Facebook and Twitter.

But with the power of free social speech in the palm of our hands, some people, especially teens and young adults, are finding out the hard way that misusing that power can have serious consequences.

"With the more clear presence, in fact almost everywhere presence of social media, it's a natural result," said Jefferson County Assistant District Attorney Ramon Rodriguez. "I think there's people, whether foolishly or not, that have the impression that social media is anonymous, and we know it's not."

Earlier this month, two 14-year-old students from Groves Middle School were arrested for making terroristic threats to another student on Facebook.

"It's new for everyone, the whole Facebook avenue, all of this is new," said Groves City Marshal Jeff Wilmore. "We take it very seriously, especially involving kids and students. They just feel like they can say and do anything and there's no repercussions from it."

Wilmore could not provide details regarding what was specifically said in the threat. Both students were sentenced to a short stay at the Minnie Rogers Juvenile Justice Center in Beaumont. Wilmore says officers were able to build a strong case because the two boys admitted to writing the posts.

Rodriguez says proving who wrote the messages is the most crucial part of any case involving social media.

"How can we show that it was actually JohnnyJoe836 who was actually sitting at that IP address, who actually sent that threatening message?" Rodriguez said.

At the Samaritan Counseling Center of Southeast Texas, counselors Kim Arrington and Tracy Williams say a majority of their clients are troubled youths. Williams says parents can help prevent their children from making mistakes online.

"I think that parents really need to spend time educating their kids about social media. Many children don't understand that once something's online, it's always there," said Williams.

Williams and Arrington say there are certain warning signs to look for in kids and teens who may turn to the Internet to unleash their frustrations.

"Changes in their normal behavior, whether or not they're more withdrawn. And physical symptoms; sometimes they'll get stomach aches and headaches that don't have a cause," said Williams.

"Just ask questions," Arrington said. "Be up front and not scared of your kids, you know 'What's going on?'"

Both counselors agree parents can't control everything their kids post online, but that it's important they open a dialogue about the consequences of writing the wrong thing.

And prosecutors have a strong message for those who still don't get it.

"What young people have to understand is that once you post it, and you realize you've done something stupid and you go and take it down, it's still there, and if we need to, we'll find it," Rodriguez said.

The two students from Groves Middle School were charged as minors, but adults found guilty of making a terroristic threat face 2-10 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000.



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