The following is the second in a pair of posts on Techdirt about how SESTA’s attempt to carve-out “trafficking” from Section 230’s platform protection threatens legitimate online speech having nothing to do with actual harm to trafficking victims.
Think we’re unduly worried about how “trafficking” charges will get used to punish legitimate online speech? We’re not.
A few weeks ago a Mississippi mom posted an obviously joking tweet offering to sell her three-year old for $12.
I tweeted a funny conversation I had with him about using the potty, followed by an equally-as-funny offer to my followers: 3-year-old for sale. $12 or best offer.
The next thing she knew, Mississippi authorities decided to investigate her for child trafficking.
The saga began when a caseworker and supervisor from Child Protection Services dropped by my office with a Lafayette County sheriff’s deputy. You know, a typical Monday afternoon.
They told me an anonymous male tipster called Mississippi’s child abuse hotline days earlier to report me for attempting to sell my 3-year-old son, citing a history of mental illness that probably drove me to do it.
Beyond notifying me of the charges, they said I’d have to take my son out of school so they could see him and talk to him that day, presumably protocol to ensure children aren’t in immediate danger. So I went to his preschool, pulled my son out of a deep sleep during naptime, and did everything in my power not to cry in front of him on the drive back to my office.
All of this for a joke tweet.
This story is bad enough on its own. As it stands now, actions by the Mississippi authorities will chill other Mississippi parents from blowing off steam with facetious remarks on social media. But at least the chilling harm is contained within Mississippi’s borders. If SESTA passes, that chill will spread throughout the country.
If SESTA were on the books, the Mississippi authorities would not have had to stop with the mom. Its next stop could be Twitter itself. No matter how unreasonable its suspicions, it could threaten criminal investigation on Twitter for having facilitated this allegedly trafficking-related speech.
The unlimited legal exposure these potential prosecutions pose will force platforms to pre-emptively remove not just the speech of parents from Mississippi but any speech from any parent anywhere that might inflame the humorless judgment of overzealous Mississippi authorities – or authorities from anywhere else where humor and judicious sense is also impaired. In fact, it won’t even be limited to parents. Authorities anywhere could come after anyone who posted anything that they decided to misinterpret as a credible threat.
These warnings might sound like hyperbole, but that’s what hangs in the balance: hyperbole. The ability to say ridiculous things because sometimes we need to say ridiculous things. If anything that gets said can be so willfully misconstrued as evidence of a crime it will chill a lot of speech, and to an exponentially unlimited extent far beyond any authority’s jurisdictional boundaries if it can force platforms to fear enabling any such speech that might happen to set any of them off.