Free speech, a cherished right in this country, does not mean we can express ourselves without consequence.
It has long been establish by the Supreme Court that those who engage in speech that maliciously causes harm can be punished.
Nearly a century ago Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. noted there could be consequences to engaging in malicious speech under certain circumstances. "Falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater," he said, is an example.
Today, we have a great many ways to express ourselves beyond shouting. We can use the Internet and a variety of social media such as Twitter to send our messages around the world in blink of an eye. This new access to a crowded planet rather than a crowded theater should not change the basic premise of Holmes' thinking.
Yet, police and governments around the world are wrestling with social media's role in mischief and criminal activity.
The Los Angeles Times took a look at the issue. It focused on a situation created by a tweet.
"All it took was a tweet," the Times reported. "A famous rapper's Twitter feed posted a phone number for the Compton station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, urging his more than half-million followers to call. Within seconds, every line on every phone at the station was jammed.
"Legitimate emergency calls for help were blocked for almost three hours by a deluge of pranksters. Sheriff's official denounced the tweet by The Game as irresponsible. But now authorities are facing a tough question: Should those who send tweets be held liable for the problems their messages cause?"
It is tough. Where is that line between mischief and malicious. Is it a prank gone wrong?
But when someone maliciously use speech that ultimately creates harm that person should be held liable for their actions.
However, holding them responsible won't be easy. Twitter and other social media make it difficult to pin down the original source given all the tweets and retweets.
Nevertheless, an effort needs to be made to figure it out. Laws should be put in place to address the growing problems created by social media.
For example, flash-mob violence has erupted in Philadelphia and Cleveland as well as London. Apparently they use text messages to coordinate looting and civil unrest. England's prime minister, has suggested shutting down access to social media for anyone suspected of using it for criminal activity, the Times reported.
The Cleveland City Council attempted to make it illegal to use social media to organize a violent flash mob after a Fourth of July fireworks display was disrupted with violence. The mayor vetoed the proposal on First Amendment concerns.
Free speech shouldn't be the issue. People should be free to express themselves without government intervention.
However, if their speech is maliciously aimed at inciting violence or criminal activity, those who are responsible are liable.