Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Serial Killers on Facebook

The State of Texas is asking Facebook to take down the page of the most notorious serial killer in Houston history.

Elmer Wayne Henley, Jr. is currently serving six life sentences in prison for his part in the mass murders of over 20 young boys in the 1970s. . . . And he has a Facebook page.

The Facebook page claims to be the authorized page of Henley.

It states:

My intended purpose in authorizing this public forum is to allow anyone who’s interested to ask questions, exchange ideas and comments, and most importantly, observe those changes in me.

Now, prisoners in the State of Texas are not allowed to have Facebook pages, and it is reported that Henley is not running this page personally. But his proxy maintains that the content is coming directly from Henley himself through forms of legal communication.

I’ll reserve comment, but the issues in play here should be obvious to you guys.

Does the state have a case? Should Facebook remove a page clearly maintained by someone with the right to do so, simply because its content comes from a man deemed deplorable by the public? What about other “Fan” pages? Would removing it infringe on free speech? Thoughts?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Provided that the person actually maintaining the web page has a legal right to do so (I’m a little murky as to how maintaining a page for someone who doesn’t have a right to have one works legally, but I’ll assume that there’s no legal argument against it), then the state of Texas has no right to push for it to be removed, outside of making a non-legal request. Facebook users can ask Facebook to remove it, as well. Hell, anyone can ask Facebook to remove it. But, asking them to remove it is very different from using legal force to try to have it removed.

    This is the classic free speech problem. Probably the majority of people in the U.S. would have no problem with a serial killer not being allowed this form of expression, and it’s hard to imagine much of redeeming value coming out of the forum. However, if public outrage or offense is all that is necessary to be removed, how do you not prevent the same from happening when a legitimate but unpopular social or political position receives similar treatment. Certainly, you could make the (I think correct) point that there’s a difference between this and a serial killer’s Facebook page, but unless that difference is clearly and carefully codified into law, it is unlikely to amount to much should the matter ever come up.

  2. Well, first and foremost there’s a difference from asking and forcing. If they are asking, that’s entirely reasonable. And it would be equally reasonable for Facebook to say “We appreciate your concern, but no.”

    It’s interesting because in this case if the government were *ordering* facebook to take it down, it would be the government forcing a third party to censor someone. Facebook as it’s own entity can censor whomever they so choose, they’re a private business. If they’re doing it at the behest of the government that’s a problem.

    The content of the page is irrelevant. Free speech is free speech. I default to maximum freedom.

  3. If it’s legal and it isn’t harming anyone, why is this news?

    Bob forbid people actually get the chance to hear what a murderer has to say about his crime and subsequent punishment… we can’t have that kind of EVIL falling onto OUR CHILDREN’s INNOCENT ears!

  4. How public is Facebook and is the same as expressing your opinion in the press or on a street corner? The courts have already decided students don’t have the full extent of freedoms they would otherwise have away from the school; and FB restricts and controls content all the time. So it seems to me an appeal to FB’s internal policy makers would be more likely to have the desired result. And proxy freedom smells like regular old normal you and me freedom. Which is too say, I’m not sure if a law can tell someone to shut up just because they claim to be speaking for someone else no matter how deplorable that someone is.

  5. I do not know what the law is on this. I am not sure that this would be censorship or an infringement of free speech. The serial killer would still have the ability to publish his thoughts. He can still send and receive letters. He could write a book about the murders or about his life or about anything else. He can and will be able to express his speech in many different ways.

    1. I’m glad you chimes in. Didn’t you once work as a prison guard?

      I was wondering about prisoners and the various ways they are allowed to and the various ways they actually do get information in an out of the joint. Do you have any insight in that area?

      1. Yes. I was a correctional officer from June 1995 until February of 1998. I worked at the Allred maximum security prison in Wichita Falls. Back then they didn’t have access to computers. I don’t know if that has changed or not. I would assume that it hasn’t. The easiest way for inmates to communicate was through telephone calls or letters. They also had visits with family, friends or attorneys. Their letters to and from the prison are searched. Mainly looking for cash, tobacco, drugs or criminal communications. All telephone calls were monitored and they weren’t allowed cell phones. I personally knew inmates who were writing their memoirs. I read the better part of one of them and encouraged the inmate to finish it and send it off to publishers. The main exception to this was legal communication. Calls to attorneys couldn’t be monitored and letters to and from lawyers could not be opened. Inmates would also work in the craft shop and build projects to order for a profit. Some of them would also work as researchers for attorneys. They were allowed to write letters to anyone who hadn’t contacted the prison systems to stop them. I hope this makes sense.

  6. Two things occur to me:
    a) Facebook is a private company that can run things as they want, and if they decide that they don’t want these sorts of pages, that’s up to them. “Free speech” doesn’t mean “Facebook is the facility by which I have free speech.”
    2) How would this be different to, say, a reporter getting questions from the public, going into the prison, interviewing the guy, then writing an article? This probably just has a quicker turn around (I guess) with less editing.

  7. I’m pretty sure the law in Texas is probably that inmates in prison can’t use facebook on prison computers. Which is of course entirely okay, they have a responsibility to make sure criminals aren’t using communication channels to plan more crimes. My understanding is that prisoner mail is also monitored for the same reason.

    However someone outside administering the page with a prisoners permission is different. They are just republishing material that the prison has already allowed through, probably via snail mail. They can politely ask Facebook to take it down but I doubt they would have any legal authority to order it taken down (particularly if the person administering it happened to be outside of Texas).

  8. If the state can prohibit a felon from sending letters to certain individuals, would the law not view facebook proxy pages as bringing in through the back door, what was barred through the front?

  9. I think the potential for harm is much greater than the potential for non-harm. I don’t think it is worth it to allow him to do this and if I were facebook I would shut it down.

    He isn’t allowed to do this according to prison regulations, Facebook can’t be sure that it is really him, or someone trying to exploit him (or exploit someone else by claiming to be him).

    If anyone does get harmed as a result, then Facebook could be liable for maintaining an “attractive nuisance”. A website where a mass murderer can communicate with anyone is an attractive nuisance if ever there was one.

    My guess is that the person who is setting this up and facilitating this is trying to get something out of it. Maybe attract chicks who have a death wish and would be an easy mark? Maybe attract young victims of abuse to exploit? Certainly those types of people are going to be attracted to this site, maybe young women who have a rescue fantasy and want to “save” him.

    If this guy is truly repentant and wants to try and make amends for what he did, this is not the way to do it.

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