Facebook threats: Are you really being threatened?

Published: May. 13, 2011 at 4:09 PM EDT|Updated: May. 16, 2011 at 3:10 AM EDT
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CHESTERFIELD, VA (WWBT) – A Chesterfield woman calls 12 claiming her life was in danger. She claims the threats came from people on Facebook. We investigated and found out there's a difference between an actual threat and simple freedom of speech.

Heather Clouse, 22, of Chesterfield has her hands full with her young son, but like with most parents, kids are a good problem to have. What's giving her a headache is Facebook -- she feels she's being bullied on the social media website, and fears her life could be in danger.

"There are people who have killed themselves because of this and nobody takes it seriously until somebody is dead and that is a problem," she said.

The problems began after she started a website called "Dear Deployment I Hate You." It's a site of support for people with deployed loved ones or spouses overseas.

Her boyfriend was deployed in 2010. The first sign of trouble, she says people had a problem that she was not married.

"There are military spouses who will not accept help from me or use the website because I am not married and I must not know what it is like to go through it," She told us. Soon after, someone created a sort of anti-Heather Facebook page called "Take the internet away from Heather Clouse."

She showed us the page - some of the posting are too graphic for TV - calls for her to be attacked, shot, and worse.

"If somebody did kill me like they said they were going to do or if I killed my self because of this, then everybody would wonder and step back and wonder well, why didn't anybody do anything," she said.

We wanted to know if the website and postings were legal and if Heather could take any action.

NBC12 legal expert Steve Benjamin weighed in. "She may not like what was said about her but that is part of free speech, having to endure statements that are mean, petty ridiculous or insulting that is part of free speech," he said.

In Benjamin's opinion, Clouse doesn't have case. He says the Facebook page and the postings are legal. But be warned, it is illegal to truly threaten someone over the computer, but proving it may be difficult.

There is a fine line and specific definition of what the law considers a true threat.

"It has to be a serious expression of an intent to do bodily harm a mere statement that somebody should suffer bodily harm is a statement of very strong personal opinion but it's not under the law a true threat," he said.

For example, a posting where a person says, "one night while she is walking to the car, bam, someone puts a bullet in her skull" is not considered a threat. Benjamin says these type of statements are only opinions and considered free speech.

We contacted Chesterfield Police about this and the department investigated Heather's case but found no violation of the law. Despite this, police say they take threats seriously and if you feel your life is danger you should contact them.

As for Heather, regardless of the law she still feels threatened and wants to see the laws change.

"There is no cyber police there is nobody that can come to my rescue because our laws have not caught with the times," she said.

If you find yourself in a similar situation as Heather's, our legal expert says the best advice may be just to ignore it. Another important tip, don't erase the page or comments you feel are threats, keep them and turn them over to police.

For more information on the law, visit the links below:

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