14 year-old’s Twitter prank leads to arrest in the Netherlands

A prank by a 14 year-old Dutch girl on Twitter prompted both her arrest – and broader questions about free speech, as Max Harris discusses.

The case

In April 2014, a 14 year-old Dutch girl, posting under the name ‘Sarah’ and on the Twitter handle ‘@QueenDemetriax_’, caused a global stir with an online prank that went horribly wrong.

The 14 year-old sent a message to the American Airlines Twitter account reading: “Hello my name’s Ibrahim and I’m from Afghanistan. I’m part of Al Qaida and on June 1st I’m gonna do something really big bye.” Six minutes later, American Airlines replied by saying: “Sarah, we take these threats very seriously. Your IP address and details will be forwarded to security and the FBI.” American Airlines was one of the airlines whose planes were hijacked on 11 September 2001; indeed, two American Airlines planes were hijacked that day.

The American Airlines reply prompted a flurry of tweets from the girl, in which she apologised, requested a lawyer, and initially at least revelled in the attention that her messages had garnered. Most memorably, perhaps, she wrote: “I feel famous omg [oh my god]”, after she gained over 30,000 followers on Twitter. She also said: “I always wanted to be famous, but … not Osama bin laden [sic] famous”, and “I’m not from Afghanistan”. Soon after, her account was deleted. But this did not stop a wave of copycat tweets, including one reading: “I have a bomb under the next plane to take off”.

Rotterdam police claimed that the girl might face criminal charges, under the offence of posting a false or alarming announcement. However, the girl was released after being questioned by police, and the story received very little press attention after initial fanfare in mid-April, suggesting that no charges were ultimately pressed.

Author opinion

This episode raises a host of free speech issues, though disappointingly the story was not analysed through the lens of free speech when it was reported by the mainstream press in mid-April.

The first question is: what level of free speech protection should online comments such as these receive? Whether one thinks the 14 year-old’s tweet deserves to be counted as free speech turns, at least in part, on whether one thinks free speech protections should be ‘content-neutral’, in the terms of the US Supreme Court. Supporters of content-neutrality aim to protect all speech, regardless of content: this camp would probably say that the Dutch Twitter prank is a form of free speech. However, some courts around the world, including the Canadian Supreme Court and in practice the US Supreme Court, have granted free speech protection that corresponds to the value of the particular speech in question: these courts might conclude that the tweet should not be given less free speech protection because it does not contribute to human autonomy or the marketplace of ideas. My view is that a wide definition of free speech is appropriate; I think the Dutch tweet should be considered a form of speech, and that the meaning of speech must be updated to incorporate conventional forms of expression in our digital world.

Secondly, relatedly, is the criminal offence of false or alarming announcements consistent with free speech? Oliver Wendell Holmes famously once said, in Schenck v United States, that falsely shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre does not warrant the protection of free speech. His view would probably be, therefore, that an offence of false announcements is perfectly compatible with free speech, properly understood. The European Convention on Human Rights, under Article 10(2), also allows restrictions on free speech to prevent “disorder or crime”, amongst other things. Others might, however, ask whether false or alarming announcements cause enough harm for there to be a justification to restrict free speech. My opinion is that the offence does not contradict free speech principles. It was used in this specific case to prevent significant disorder to American Airlines and its passengers.

- Max Harris

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Comments (6)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. I read the above article with great interest; which was very well written and thought provoking. I must first comment that I have no special knowledge of this sort of issue; but perhaps some more personal involvement with cases similar or more obfuscated aspects of this sort of case. First of all this Dutch girl appears to have been extremely silly by sending these tweets to American Airlines. I personally do not believe that free speech should extend as far as these tweets we have read about. I do however believe that young people have a propensity toward foolishness and frivolity; and need to be protected. The United States may demand deportation of this Dutch girl to the US and she could face an extremely long prison sentence, in very draconian, violent conditions. Let us not forget those tortured to death for far less, where the ‘war on terror’ is involved. I really do believe we cannot allow free speech to reach out as far as acts or communications that endanger people. However, albeit this is a very invidious statement to make; we must defend free speech in every way and not become apathetic towards all the indirect suppression of free speech by the duplicity of powers that be. If you look simply look at today’s news, surely one can quickly come to the conclusion that certain stories are perceived as propaganda weapons, rather than news. Anyone who speaks out of tune with the ‘party song’ in these circumstances with be ridiculed and silenced. Many people in the public eye have fallen foul of this sort of thing. We must ask our selves, just how much do we feel the need to appease our peers, and how safe would we feel if our opinion favored those generally hated by the majority. This Dutch girl may not have genuinely supported the Taliban; but in all the hysteria and with all the miscellaneous driving forces against her; who will care.

  2. I’ve read this article with interest. Whilst I don’t know much about the philosophical approach to this sort of thing; I hope I manage to leave a comment of some interest. In my humble opinion; the tweets from this 14 Year old girl cannot be excused as a form of free speech. These comments must have caused distress to those involved. However I’m sure that authorities we rely upon have done far worse. Whilst these tweets where unacceptable; young people have a strong propensity towards foolishness and frivolity, and need to be protected. Remember people have been tortured to death for far less. Sarah may be deported to the US and forced to make a plea bargain, followed by a trail and very long prison sentence in draconian, violent conditions. We should be ready to campaign for justice, regarding this case.

  3. This article raises an interesting question. As with all freedoms or rights, we’re always drawn to find the line in the sand. I am a proponent of free speech but I believe there are limits. Inciting violence or hate speech are often cited as taking it too far and I agree.

    So where does this case fall? The girl caused a widespread disturbance by insinuating she was a terrorist and threatening to have a plan. I believe online interactions have to follow the same laws that we do in our normal day-to-day lives. So this tweet, in my opinion, should not be protected by free speech.

    That being said, I’m glad she didn’t have the book thrown at her. This is a case of a kid being a kid. It’s good that the authorities recognized she wasn’t a threat and that she had simply made a horrible judgement call. I’m sure she learned a valuable lesson from the experience.

  4. The 14 year old girls actions were very serious and affected many people including each person in the world called Ibrahim, the American airlines, American airlines clients, families of the 9/11 victims, and citizens of New York who witnessed the terrible attacks on the twin towers. We all agree with the fact that the 14-year old should be released from major criminal charges. This is due to her being only a 14 year old meaning she may not make the best choices all the time as the brain is still developing at that age. Also, since her being so young, criminal charges would affect her entire future. However, we do believe that she should be punished in the form of community services, as it will hopefully help her become more considerate towards others. This is because a fine would just be her parent paying but then the girl wouldn’t learn anything from her mistakes. This is why community services as a punishment would help her realize that her actions were terribly wrong by making her do work for society.

  5. The article above provokes many interesting questions regarding the right to free speech as well as what classifies as hate speech and what does not. As part of our English class, I have recently been studying hate speech and whether it should be protected as free speech or not. Although this may not fall under the classical categorisation of “hate speech” – (speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, colour, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits), it clearly has an intent inciting violence or possible danger. What she did is equivalent to shouting “fire!” in a busy theatre, or “crying wolf,” as the tale goes. The Dutch penal code, although it does punish the use of hate speech, “He who publicly, orally, in writing or graphically, intentionally expresses himself insultingly regarding a group of people because of their race, their religion or their life philosophy, their heterosexual or homosexual orientation or their physical, psychological or mental disability, shall be punished by imprisonment of no more than a year or a monetary penalty of the third category” does not actually have any laws regarding the use of language that may be dangerous to others. After reading this article, I read some more of @QueenDematriax_ tweets following up on what she had said, and I found a few tweets where she seemed to be mocking American Airlines for taking her threat so seriously. However, I feel that, if anything, American Airlines did not take her seriously enough, as potentially hundreds of people could have been killed if this threat were to have been real. Although I’m not saying that Sarah should have been sentenced to prison, I find it strange that a government can punish hateful language towards people with one year prison sentence, yet have no punishment when someone threatens to bomb a plane with hundreds of innocent people. Letting Sarah go without any sort of further warning or mild punishment seems too lenient of a ramification, as many people were potentially in danger. Personally, I think that the Dutch penal code should add an article limiting freedom of speech in order to ensure the safety of people in these sorts of cases, especially given the recent terror attacks. In my opinion, threats or blackmails should have an equivalent, if not more severe punishment, than that of hate speech.

  6. This girl, Sarah, fabricated a message that was inappropriate beyond belief. In her tweet she mentioned the name ‘Ibrahim’ and said that he was from Afghanistan. She directed this tweet towards American Airlines. American Airlines is an American company that was unfortunately the victim of an Al Qaida terrorist act in 2001. Four of their planes were hijacked by the militant Islamist organization in 9/11 which caused the death of hundred thousands of people. This event had caused so much terror and despair among the citizens who were directly or indirectly involved/affected by this tragedy. It is also the event that triggered the development of massive amounts of precautions and security that have contemporary been implemented. Sarah’s “prank” caused a major panic for this airline which then lead to an immediate FBI inspection. A prank like this shouldn’t be left with no consequences.

    I believe that freedom of speech needs to have some limits, or wise we are giving the public the right to lie, create false alarms and make ”pranks”. Without some consequences the individuals will continue to incorrectly exercise their right. If false alarms are repeatedly announced, then at one point the police and security will no longer pay attention to the warnings, putting everyone at risk. Because one day the warning will be genuine and the consequences could be fatal. Freedom of speech does not and can not justify or be an excuse to not undergo the ramifications of such acts or pranks that create distress among others. This is why there needs to be restrictions on what can and cannot be said. Causing unnecessary fear should be met with the right penalty.

    This girl has shown that she doesn’t seem to have learned from her mistake nor has she understood what impact her tweet has caused to other people. In order for to understand the wrong she has done. If it has to be done through community work, or paying charges, this disruption and fear spread throughout the people should not be taken lightly.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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