In comics, a certain level of hyperbolic and sometimes vitriolic rhetoric has become part of the norm when readers discuss stories online. And while that may be true for almost any site on the internet, be it entertainment, sports, politics or whatever, the relatively smaller size of the comics industry and the ease of accessibility to many creators has meant that such talk can easily take on a more personal and threatening tone. The most recent example of this occured over the weekend when “Amazing Spider-Man” writer Dan Slott received death threats via Twitter and Facebook over story points in the series’ upcoming 700th issue.
Such threats, whether intended as serious or not, are becoming a more common occurrence in the comics internet. Creators and editors alike have noted publicly the intimidating responses headline-grabbing stories like the introduction of “Ultimate Spider-Man’s” Miles Morales or the gay wedding in “Astonishing X-Men” have inspired. But while many write off such threats as the last resort of the extremely stupid or totally classless, directly threatening the lives of others on the web carries a wide range of serious legal consequences.
Penalties and classifications vary state-by-state on whether such threats constitute bullying, terrorism or other felony charges, but convictions for such crimes can result in imprisonment for anywhere from 16 months to 25 years or more. However, while it doesn’t take much more than forwarding cyber threats to local authorities to start the ball rolling on judicial action, levying charges against someone can be harder to do.
“Internet threats are not easy to prosecute,” Paul Guthrie, a Deputy District Attorney with the Los Angeles Country DA’s office, told CBR News. Guthrie explained that his state qualifies internet death threats as a “strike felony,” as in “three strikes and you’re out,” where penalties for the crime impact future felonies as well. “In California, it’s penal code section 422, and it is a strike offense. If you get convicted of this, you’ve got one strike on your record. It’s also, interestingly, what we call a ‘wobbler,’ which means it can be a felony or it can be a misdemeanor. Usually, strikes are reserved for the more serious felonies, but it’s possible for this to be a misdemeanor.”
Guthrie said that in order for one to be convicted of making a legitimate death threat online in the California courts, the action taken has to meet a number of requirements outlined by the penal code. These include a real intent to threaten (as opposed to attempts at humor), a specific call to death or great bodily injury that is conditional and executable, and a sustained response of fear in the recipient of the threat. “I had a guy that we had on camera making threats, and we had to talk about, ‘Well, are we going to file on this guy or not?’ But you could see on the video the intended victim laughing. He clearly didn’t take that as a threat.”
However, threats made in any medium, from phone to web to in-person to threats made to a third party, can be grounds to prosecute on if the specific threat meets those qualifiers. Once convicted, the charge carries the possibility of prison, and even if a convicted party avoids jail time, the “three strike” system can compound the possible penalty in the future. “If you only have one strike, then any felony you pick up in the future…[will] double your time. When you get into other crimes, that makes a huge difference,” Guthrie said, noting that in California, a third strike of a violent nature means a prison sentence of 25 to life.
In other states, the laws work differently, sometimes actually making prosecution easier. Timothy Matas, a Public Defender in Platte County, Nebraska, said that in his state, cyber threats are classified as a “Terroristic Threats,” placing the impetus more on intent than in California. “In Nebraska, a person commits the crime of terroristic threats if he or she ‘threatens to commit any crime of violence: (a) with the intent to terrorize another; (b) With the intent of causing the evacuation of a building, place of assembly, or facility of public transportation; or (c) In reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or evacuation.
“It really doesn’t matter if the threat is made in person, over the phone, or by email,” Matas continued. “It really doesn’t even require that the intended target actually be terrorized. Certainly, a death threat or threat of bodily harm to Mr. Slott would have been considered a terroristic threat in Nebraska, regardless of whether Mr. Slott was actually terrorized or knew the person.”
Matas said that the classification his state recognizes also impacts the potential for more serious prison time for a first offense. “In Nebraska, a terroristic threat is classified as a Class IV Felony, and is punishable by up to 5 years in prison. I’ve dealt with many terroristic threats cases that involved threats over the phone, and even a couple that involved a direct e-mail threat, although that one ended up pleading to a lesser charge.”
If creators or their employers opt to press charges for cyber death threats, the borderless nature of the web gives them options to pursue convictions based on where they feel they have the best chance for a conviction. “If you want to get theoretical on it, you could say that anywhere the crime is committed, you can file there. Well, is the crime committed where the person makes the threat or where it’s received? If your writer is in New York, and a person in Mississippi makes the threat, you could theoretically file that in New York,” said Guthrie.
CBR News reached out to both Marvel and DC Comics for comment on their policies regarding death threats to creators. As of press time, Marvel had not provided response, and DC declined comment.