Here’s a lesson from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Watch what you tweet.
British 20-somethings Leigh Van Bryan and Emily Banting were looking forward to their trip to Los Angeles. But when they arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, they were greeted not by palm trees and movie star sightings, but by Homeland Security officials, who detained the two in separate holding cells for 12 hours, according to the Daily Mail. Van Bryan was apparently held with Mexican drug dealers, and described the experiences as “really scary.”
Their offense? Two tweets.
Three weeks before the trip, Van Bryan tweeted “3 weeks today, we’re totally in LA pissing people off on Hollywood Blvd and diggin’ Marilyn Monroe up!” Later, he tweeted, “free this week for a quick gossip/prep before I go destroy America? x.”
Van Bryan claims the “diggin’ up Marilyn Monroe” phrase comes from an episode of “Family Guy,” and that “destroy” is slang for partying hard and getting drunk (a little like “wrecked” might be used on this side of the pond).
Homeland Security didn’t seem to think those explanations were adequate; they flagged the tweets and, after holding, questioning and searching the two (they even looked for spades and shovels, ostensibly to be used for disinterring Marilyn Monroe) put them back on a plane home. Van Bryan says one agent told him, “You really f***ed up with that tweet, boy.”
The incident raised the hackles of privacy and free speech advocates, who wondered whether Homeland Security should have the right to undertake such extreme actions on the basis of nothing but statements made on social media.
On the other hand, some claim that Twitter and similar sites are public, and that people should understand that statements they make on such sites might be subject to scrutiny, especially if they could be perceived as threatening or violent.
It’s a tough debate, and one that is sure to rage on as social media becomes a larger and larger part of public life.
What do you think? Does the government have the right to watch what we post and take action, or are tweets, status updates, check-ins and the like protected as free speech? Did Homeland Security overreact, or do its job to keep the country safe?