Local colleges and law enforcement combat online media threats

1 year 1 week 2 days ago December 02, 2015 Dec 2, 2015 Wednesday, December 02 2015 Wednesday, December 02, 2015 10:29:00 AM CST in News
By: Taylor Reid, KOMU 8 Reporter

COLUMBIA - While most social networks are designed as a medium for people to converse and share information, they also provide another avenue for individuals to stir up something sinister. Threats of violence are an unfortunate but very real existence in communities across the globe. Colleges in Columbia work with local law enforcement to combat the issue of online social media threats.

Columbia Assistant Prosecutor Brouck Jacobs said that a common misconception people have on social media is that if they post on a site anonymously their true identity cannot be revealed. 

“People think that there’s a veneer of anonymity to a lot of these websites and making postings like with YikYak but it’s really not anonymous,” Jacobs said.

Although numerous sites allow users to post anonymously, when threats are made or someone is a victim of harassment, anonymity can easily be unveiled by authorities.

“The police will apply for a search warrant, get the internet service provider and figure out the IP address and who owns the computer that transmitted that threat,” Jacobs said.

 Although authorities are equipped to handle these situations, the legal process relies heavily on a strong relationship and communication between schools and law enforcement.

“If it’s a university case the university police department refers the charges to our office and if we believe a crime is committed then we file charges,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said that some people believe in order to charge a person with harassment or offenses against public order that authorities must prove the person was going to follow through with the crime or threat.

“We only have to prove that people are alarmed by the threat,” Jacobs said.

In order to be charged with a crime, the prosecutor takes the police reports and if they believe a crime was committed they charge the crime based on the facts.

Adjunct MU Law Professor Sandra Davidson said that just like with many other crimes, intent must be proven. However, this can be done in part if a reasonable person recognizes the threat as real.

“To have intent the [Supreme Court] is saying that if you have knowledge that what you have done would be perceived as a threat, that is enough to constitute intent,” Davidson said.

Davidson said that sometimes people think intent is an abnormal condition or difficult to gather evidence for.

“Intent is a requirement of a lot of crimes, not some mystical something that is hard to prove in court,” Davidson said.

The University of Missouri, Stephens College and Columbia College all have similar social media policies for students on their campuses.

Columbia College's policy is to accept the majority of comments made to their profile but also will intervene or take action when necessary.

Columbia College’s social media policy states that it “reserves the right to take action when deemed necessary. delete communications that contain profanity or vulgarity; defame a person, groups of people or an organization; promotes a product or service; is deemed offensive or inappropriate in nature by our social media team.”

Stephens College’s security director said that the level of action taken against online threats varies case by case depending on the circumstance. Ultimately it depends on the nature of the threat and whether it’s online or in another form.

While colleges work to pacify these issues, after recent terror threats at MU some students think more can be done.

“I feel more comfort in my professors and my experiences with them than the administration,” MU student Kristen Jones said. “I feel like the professors are more aware and show their concern more.”

Jones said that this in part could be because students do not know the faces of MU’s administration or know who to go to when these issues arise.

MU masters student Sean Joy said that the university could have reacted more quickly but that situations like these are a learning process.

“Administration throughout campus, regardless of the department, can work to reach out to our students and make sure that they are safe, doing well and using resources we have on our campus in order to feel safe and feel protected on our university,” Joy said.

Overall, many colleges in Columbia have policies in place and work with authorities to keep social media sites safe for all students. 

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