On Tuesday, the Flagler County School Board signed on with a company to conduct social media trolling and send alerts to school officials whenever certain key words denoting security issues warrant it. But whether local government or law enforcement agencies are systematically conducting or delegating such surveillance jobs, much of the work is already being done by friends, neighbors, employers, fellow-employees, ex’s and the like.
And some of it results in cops’ knocks at people’s doors and unnerving encounters with law enforcement, even in some cases when the words, the videos, or the messages in question are clear expressions of sarcasm or humor, however misfired.
Take what happened to Tony Lagano almost immediately after he posted to his Facebook account a video the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office would later term “suspicious.”
Lagano is a 35-year-old resident of Palm Coast’s F Section. He’s a veteran of the 82nd Airborne, he’s previously worked as a journalist, he describes himself as an artist and musician. He maintains a very active Facebook page, quoting poetry or writing his own, posting music videos, liberally using George Carlin-type language, and posting the occasional rant. Divorced since 2007, he’s had running issues with his ex-wife over his access to his daughter, with two injunctions along the way–the latest served just days ago. He’d requested from the court to have his daughter testify at a hearing. The court denied the motion.
His video, posted at noon on April 13, opens with a shot of the denial order on the floor, with what looks like a moist glob on the wording. “See what this is? I spit on it,” Lagano’s voice is heard saying. “So they don’t want to hear from the child [because] the child needs to be in school. They need to be present at school in case there’s a school shooting. So, you know what I think about this? “ He then uses a lighter and lights the document from both ends. “That’s nice. That’s what I think about that.” The document burns. There’s a quick pan to Lagano’s dog. “It’s roasting up nice. The one spot that won’t burn is where I spit on it.” The video was posted under the hashtag #LeTiiiTBuRN.
As of today–five days later–the video had been seen only 85 times (counting several viewings as this story was being written.) Like most of Lagano’s Facebook postings, it was visible only to his friends (they number 4,078, but the video would not have been visible to the sort of company the school board just hired to troll accounts). Lagano’s ex-wife got wind of it through a friend, according to a sheriff’s incident report, and the next afternoon she spoke to deputies about it.
Two deputies showed up at Lagano’s door that evening.
Coincidentally, Lagano, who’s had a few run-ins with the Sheriff’s Office before, had the previous day posted a picture of the sheriff’s “Green Roof Inn” sign at the county jail under the hash tags #WhenYouTrollTheSheriffsDepartment and #BecauseTheyAreABunchOfMentalMidgets.He thinks the posting got the sheriff’s attention–he’s convinced the Sheriff’s Office does its own surveillance of local social media–but, he claims, since deputies couldn’t pay him a visit on that account, they seized on the opportunity to do so regarding the video.
Lagano was surprised when the deputies showed up, and was even more surprised, he says, when they asked about the video. While he’d never named a school in his brief video or stated anything to the effect of carrying out a shooting, Lagano’s recent past likely contributed to deputies’ response. Less than three years ago he was arrested on a charge eventually lowered to a misdemeanor for improperly exhibiting a gun during an argument with neighbors. He’d also once been Baker Acted for 24 hours after he says he sent his ex-wife the video of “The End” by The Doors, a song rich in allusions about death and killing. When his ex received it, she requested that deputies conduct a wellness check at his home. “She took it to mean that I was suicidal,” he said in an interview this afternoon. “I was just upset that she was trying to take my relationship with my daughter away.”
Tony Lagano’s Facebook Video
In sum, Lagano’s past is not quite serene, his opinion of the Sheriff’s Office is not flattering, and he has more than a passing acquaintance with temperamental issues. But that doesn’t equate to lawbreaking or even suspicious behavior, in his view, even in the present context. “they should still have enough sense to know, to watch the video and know hey this isn’t about a school shooting at all.”
The deputies were not heavy-handed. The deputy he spoke with was friendly, another stood off to the side, a bit more somber but not aggressively so, and neither asked or told him to take down the video, which is still on his page. He explained the context of the video, its sarcasm and purpose. “This is the court telling me that my daughter can’t testify because she has to be in school.
I’m really upset about the whole case,” he says, as he is about facing an open-ended injunction (which he says he’s appealing).
“I didn’t do anything wrong, I burned the paperwork from the court,” Lagano says. “And the guy said well do you have any animosity toward the court? I said yeah, I’ve got some animosity toward the court, they’re interfering” with his family, “but I’m not going to go bomb the courthouse.”
“I refuse to censor myself, so that’s another problem,” he says: his Facebook page is proof. (And he calls himself an anarchist, though it has nothing to do with not following rules: he prefers to say he’s not fond of rulers or “injustice.”) “If you’re an artist,” he says, “you have to really be scared of what you produce because anything that you produce can be used to take your gun rights, can be used to take away your parental rights, it’s really stunning that this is where individuals are in this country.”
The Sheriff’s Office has investigated about five such social-media type alerts since Parkland, according to Chief Mark Strobridge–alerts brought to the Sheriff’s Office by tipsters in the community. The office itself does not have a trolling system–not yet, anyway: it’s looking into it. “We’ve been looking at those programs, we’re looking for a program that’ll actually be fruitful, and that will work and be less intrusive,” Strobridge said. Those five or so cases don’t include other investigations that have led to several arrests, including several juveniles, who have either joked about or made allusions to, in person or online, school shootings.
There’s no hesitation about investigating either type of alert on the sheriff’s part. “We of course have got to investigate these things when these things are brought to our attention or we find them or come across them either through tips or other ways,” Strobridge said. “In every case where we follow these things through where there’s a true threat being made, we are going to be very aggressive to make the arrest. We are not going to wait for something bad to happen as an organization, and the sheriff will not allow these things to be passed by. The other side of it is, it takes a tremendous amount of resources to do these follow-ups.”
Strobridge added: “The time for fun and games is over in Flagler County. In other words, you can’t joke around about harming people at school and not expect to be arrested. That’s what that means.”
And offbeat, artistic or sarcastic expression? “Satire, sarcasm, artistic expression is still alive and well. It’s kind of like, statutorily you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater house,” Strobridge said. “There are some things thought that you can’t just kid about anymore because we can’t be inside of a person’s head to determine if it’s artistic expression based on a posting or those things that we see.”
That’s what requires a follow-up, Strobridge continued. “We don’t want to be in a situation where we’re having to explain to the community or to some child’s parent that we should have, could have, and did not. The sheriff’s position is to protect this community, and as we review these things, as we investigate these potential threats and such, we will follow up, we will make the arrest. It’s not necessarily heavy-handed as much as it is zero tolerance,” which doesn’t mean investigating even when there’s no probable cause, but it means “you look at every event that’s brought to your attention and you investigate it to make sure there isn’t an event there.”