When is an online post illegal and when is it free speech?

Most speech whether it's online or not is protected by the U.S. Constitution

Most speech whether it’s online or not is protected by the U.S. Constitution. While experts said there are extremely gray areas when it comes to determining if speech is illegal, there are ways to do it on a case by case basis.

Each day,countless people post their thoughts and feelings to the world wide web.

“The first amendment protects lots of obnoxious, icky, gross speech,” said Cheryl Gill, a partner at Johns, Flaherty and Collins law firm, said.

However, it does not protect, a certain type of speech called a “true threat,” A true threat in Wisconsin is determined in two major ways.

“First, the person threatening another has to reasonably believe that their threat would induce fear in to the victim,” Gill said. “Second, the person being threatened or the victim has to reasonably be in fear.”

Gill said a reasonable person can fairly easily determine if something was meant to induce fear or not.

“If somebody writes, ‘Someday you’re going to be beaten to a pulp by the citizens of this community, ‘ I mean is that a true threat? But if somebody writes, ‘I’m coming over to your house tonight and I know where you live,’ you know that is different,” Gill said.

The Onalaska Police Department said if a person feels threatened online they have the right to call law enforcement.

“We will investigate it and if we deem a crime was committed then we will follow up on it,” said Chad Marcon, an investigator for the Onalaska Police Department.

Police said they usually speak to the victim, the person making the threat, and will seize computers as evidence. In some instances the case will go to court.

“They usually charge you under the disorderly conduct statute, so what the judge has to do there is determine whether the words were a true threat. If they were a true threat then you can criminalize it,” Gill said.

The Onalaska Police Department said most of the online crimes they deal with are actually between minors because they use social media much more than older age groups. However, whether it’s an adult or child making threatening speech, if it is deemed a “true threat” it is illegal.