The New York Times reports that Twitter has turned over to the police the account information of an individual who used Twitter to threaten a copycat shooting similar to the recent tragedy in Aurora, Colorado at a showing of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  The individual is believed to have tweeted, “I’m serious, people are going to die like Aurora” and “I got 600 people on my hit list and that’s gonna be mass murder for real,” among others, in connection with his attending the Broadway show, “Mike Tyson: Undisputed Truth” in midtown Manhattan. 

Police investigators learned of the posts last Friday.  Twitter denied the police’s initial emergency request for information, stating that the tweets did not meet the strict parameters of their policy for disclosure of a specific and immediate threat.  The police returned on Monday with a subpoena. 

When it comes to deciding the scope of free speech and privacy, Twitter holds a unique gatekeeper role.  In the first instance, it is often Twitter’s internal policies alone that dictate whether to respond to any particular request for information or whether to remove any particular tweet.  On the one hand, Twitter regularly responds to government requests for information.  For example, as we discussed in our post on Twitter transparency, Twitter honors about 75% of requests for information from the U.S. Government.  On the other hand, Twitter also adamantly seeks to remain distant, as evidenced by its motion to quash a subpoena for information on the account of an alleged Occupy Wall Street protester, as discussed in our separate post here.  On July 2, a Manhattan court rejected that attempt and forced Twitter to turn over the account information.

The New York police and the judge who issued the subpoena obviously concluded that, in this instance, there was a legitimate and imminent threat and that Twitter should have turned over the information in response to the emergency request.  Indeed, the threats here explain how the crime would be accomplished, noting “I know they leave their exit doors unlocked.”  This begs the question, is there a line – and if so, where is it?  What would happen were the tweets in question were less aggressive, or a misunderstanding, or even a joke? 

In the United Kingdom, an individual was arrested for sending a “menacing” communication, an offense under the UK’s Communications Act.  The tweet at issue:  “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed.  You’ve got a week and a bit to get your s**t together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!” (stars added). 

As it turns out, the 27-year old accountant had arrived at the airport to find it shut down on account of snow.  He chose an ill-advised way of expressing his frustration and ended up losing his job and then getting convicted by a lower court.  The tweet was in January 2010, and – despite maintaining that it was just a bad joke — he did not receive vindication until a ruling last month.