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SU Professor: Law Enforcement Can't Predict if Hateful Internet Rhetoric Will Lead to Violence

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The director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University acknowledges it’s almost impossible to balance the right of citizens to express themselves and the need for law enforcement predict if a person will act on it.  About 20 minutes before the call came in for a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, an anti-immigrant manifesto warning of a “Hispanic Invasion of Texas” appeared online. 

Police are still trying to determine if it was written by the suspect who killed 22 people at a Walmart.  Professor Roy Gutterman even seems to struggle with this complicated issue.

"I don't know what the answer is.  I don't know if anybody has the answer because we still live in a free society where people should be able to blow off steam no matter how offensive it is.  But there's a difference between blowing off steam rhetorically and committing these awful, horrific acts."

Gutterman says short of someone posting that they plan to commit a crime at a specific time and location, law enforcement has limited grounds for acting without violating free speech rights or protections from government surveillance.   

"It's easy to put the dots together after the fact when somebody posts something,  or you go back and look at somebody's social media trail, and you see, oh, that they had all these thoughts and intentions all along."

In Dayton, Ohio, those who knew the 24-year-old shooter say he kept “rape” and “kill” lists for years, even texting it to a former classmate to prove she was on it.  That classmate says he expressed violent attitudes going back a decade.  He killed nine people before police killed him.   

There’s been much speculation about whether President Trump’s sometimes racially charged and divisive rhetoric is setting the tone for angry discourse that might develop into something more.  Gutterman says it’s hard to pinpoint causation.

"Some of the rhetoric that comes out of the administration certainly seems like it lights a fuse.  You never know how things are going to be received by people who might unstable or might be bad people."

He says the president does have a bully pulpit which can be used to influence behavior.