His name is Josh Pillault, and he could do 10 years in prison.
Sylvan Lane, of Opposing Views, outlines Josh’s plight succinctly. “In October 2012,” Lane writes, “Josh Pillault, 19, was playing Runescape – an online, multiplayer fantasy game in which users all over the globe interact and fight in a virtual world – when a fellow player antagonized him so badly, Pillault threatened to perpetrate a Columbine-like attack on his local high school.”
Pillault was investigated by federal officers and arrested even though nothing was found in his home or possession, such as weapons or explosives, with which he could have perpetrated such an attack. Complicating the case is the fact that Josh, prior to his arrest, used the alias “Paul Gilbert” online to tell other gamers he was going to kill himself, but not before taking out other people first. He was a discipline problem at his school, too, subjected to 20 different disciplinary actions before he dropped out of the very high school he threatened to attack.
Josh now awaits sentencing pending a report by the U.S. Probation Service, which will inform the judge’s decision. Josh’s threat has been described in news reports as “sarcastic” and “half-hearted,” but there’s no doubt that this is a serious legal matter. Josh faces dire consequences for his online actions – actions he probably thought were protected by the quasi-anonymity of the Internet, his distance from his antagonists and the fact that, hey, it’s the Internet, so why would anyone take it seriously?
Josh is not alone.
A 19-year-old named Justin Carter was jailed in February – where he remains – because he, too, issued online threats while playing an Internet-connected game. Carter, too, said something about attacking a school. He celebrated his most recent birthday in jail and could do eight years if the judge believes his threat to be legitimate.
But online threats, and the consequences for them, aren’t simply the purview of gamers and young men. Remember firearms instructor James Yeager? The controversial, bellicose and flamboyant Yeager donned his tightest T-shirt earlier this year to film a video in which he threatened to start shooting people. His ire was a result of President Obama’s executive orders on gun control, which Yeager (like so many of us) saw as an unconstitutional attack on the Second Amendment.
“In January, I posted a video to YouTube in which I vehemently expressed my opposition to any effort to impose gun control that might circumvent Congress,” Yeager writes in the description to a follow-up video. “Some of my comments were quite volatile, and I retracted those comments publicly a short time later. In the mean time, the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security issued a suspension of my handgun carry permit, claiming that I was a threat to the community.”
The suspension of Yeager’s permit caused a firestorm of bitter recriminations both within and without the gun culture in the United States. Yeager became the poster child among anti-gun groups for why those crazy white men and their awful guns could not be trusted to remain together. If a firearms instructor could go so badly off the rails, the “antis” argued, surely the average citizen could not be trusted with a handgun or an “assault weapon.”
Yeager’s permit was restored following a hearing in General Sessions Court, but the damage to the cause of firearms rights was already done. It all came down to unwise, ill-considered speech. It was all the result of a single YouTube video in which one man said something he ought not have said.
That brings us to another YouTube user.
In Trial by YouTube and in other columns, Technocracy has referred to the legal plight of a fellow named only as “John,” who was arrested last year for allegedly possessing child pornography. In a series of YouTube videos uploaded since he was released on bail, John has blamed an elaborate conspiracy (including police and government corruption) for his plight. Should he go to trial and be convicted, he will be both a felon and a sex offender. In other words, his life will be over.
And he knows that.
In a YouTube video uploaded on June 30, he states, “I really, really don’t want to throw my life away … which is what’s going to happen regardless of whatever I do.”
“I refuse to acknowledge the authority of the Police or Courts,” he writes online. “They have no lawful authority and the only authority they have comes from a gun.” He goes on in his video to explain why, given the “falsification of evidence” in his case (which he believes he has “proven” in his many YouTube videos), he has the legal right to resist what he believes is a false arrest.
“I refuse to go to jail for something I didn’t do, and I’m going to fight you tooth and nail as best as I can legally. However, you are pushing me to the point to where … You are giving me the authority to kill cops. That’s right, I said, you are giving me the authority to kill cops. You are giving me the power to kill people, government people, and get away with it.” He eventually outlines a series of demands, including having his criminal record expunged. “You’re fighting to protect your careers,” he warns. “I’m fighting to protect my life.”
All online threats like this have in common the fact that those reading or viewing them have no reason not to believe them. In some cases, such as when angry teenagers threaten each other in online games, it’s probably safe not to take such statements seriously. In others, however, we cannot afford to ignore warnings of violence. Both Yeager and “John” have threatened to kill government functionaries to enforce their interpretation of the law. Only one of those threats has been judged unfounded.
There are countless Yeagers and Johns on the Internet. Death threats are made by such people every day. Once in a while, those threats are real.
It remains to be seen which ones.