Seeing the Signs: Using Social Media to ID Potential Threats to Artists' Safety (Guest Column)

Tyler Golden/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Christina Grimmie performs on The Voice.

With greater access to artists both online & in-person, entertainment lawyer Dina LaPolt advises keeping a close eye on the feeds and using the full extent of the law.

I was with several of my female clients the night Christina Grimmie was shot. I will never forget the grief, and terror, that I saw in those girls’ eyes. 

Too often do we hear stories of crazed and sometimes violent individuals willing to do whatever it takes to be recognized. They range from simply star-struck fans to mentally unstable activists, but all should be treated with the same level of care.

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As the music business has struggled to find new sources of revenue in the face of ever declining sales figures, “meet-and-greets” have become increasingly more common. Typically marketed as premium-priced tickets, meet-and-greets give fans the highly sought after opportunity to meet the stars they idolize. These intimate encounters, however, are often times when artists are most vulnerable, and many simply cannot afford adequate additional security to protect against attackers. Whether the threat be physical or emotional in nature, it is our obligation, as representatives of these artists, to vigilantly monitor social media and email accounts and proactively address these potentially dangerous situations before tragedy strikes.

On June 10, 2016, Christina Grimmie, a former contestant on NBC’s The Voice, was signing autographs and taking pictures with fans after a concert in Orlando, Florida when she was gunned down by an unforeseen assailant. Reports from witnesses at the scene say the man calmly waited in line with several other eager fans before opening fire on the singer when his turn came up.  Friends and family of the gunman described him as a “hermit” who seemed to have developed an unhealthy obsession with the singer in the months preceding the attack. No evidence has been found suggesting the two had any prior contact, whether online or in person, but the man was known to closely follow the artist’s social media accounts and YouTube channel. Although the venue had basic security measures in place, he still was able to sneak in two pistols, which he used in the attack.

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Unfortunately, the attack on Christina, although extreme, is not an isolated incident.  Recently, another determined fan attempted to gain access to the dressing rooms of an all-female pop group while they were on tour in South America. The young girl was initially calm and represented herself as having access to the restricted area, but after security guards denied her entrance to the rooms her actions became more desperate. After being asked to leave several times, the disgruntled fan attempted to push her way through the guards. The matter escalated and security was forced to physically remove her from the area. After her unsuccessful attempt she went on to falsely accuse the guards of sexual harassment. The event was witnessed by several group members who confirmed the amount of force the guards used was necessary.

Regrettably, in situations such as these, there may be no prior indication of a threat, however often times traceable precursors can be found on the internet indicating an individual’s propensity for desperate behavior. This was the case earlier this year for another of my young female clients. In April, the artist’s team became aware of an individual who had been posting confusing and disturbing messages directed at the artist’s social media accounts. Some of the most concerning posts stated, for example:

“DEVIL AND HIS FALLEN ANGELS ARE THE ONES THAT TEST OUR FAITH LA IS THE CITY OF ANGELS JUST NOT THE GOOD ONES YOU HAVE A STRONG AURA AROUND U.”

"God sets us on a path its up to us to stay on it, it takes faith, He gave us free will and to make our own decisions."

"GOD has asked me to do something that will affect hundreds of million people, I need my girl on this journey but she don't know I exist yet."

The individual also sent several emails to the artist's management team in which he confused her with his deceased girlfriend and repeatedly requested that he speak with her. He even went so far as to say  “there are only two people prepared to die for her, her father and himself.” Shortly after he was positively identified at one of the artist’s performances in Chicago—a staggering 700 miles from his home. The individual attempted to gain access to the backstage by claiming to be part of the security team, but was escorted out of the building after being recognized by security.

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During this encounter the clearly deranged individual again referred to the artist by the name of his deceased girlfriend. Finally, as the result of surveillance of the individual’s social media accounts, it was discovered he had traveled to Los Angeles in another effort to catch the star’s attention. Although the individual was unsuccessful in ever making contact, it was clear he posed a safety risk and was willing to go well beyond the means of a typical fan to get what he wanted.

Apart from enhanced security measures at performances and public appearances, a restraining order can be a valuable tool for the proactive protection of artists. While specific requirements vary by jurisdiction, typically in order to obtain a restraining order three things must be shown:

    •    That there exists a credible, real threat of violence
    •    That this threat seriously scares, annoys, or harasses someone, with no valid reason
    •    That there be established minimum contacts between the two individuals

Traditionally to establish minimum contacts, an element of physicality is required, such as a recent act of physical violence or a threat of immediate physical violence. Frequently, however, by the time the situation progresses to this point, it is already too late. We cannot wait for physicality in order to act. In today’s world, potential threats can be identified long before physical contact occurs simply by monitoring artists’ social media and e-mail accounts.

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Many representatives mistakenly believe that this “minimum contacts” element stands as a barrier to obtaining a protective order and thus do not see it as a viable option. In the situation with my client, it was unclear whether the online activity alone would be enough to garner a protective order, because a physical threat had not yet been made and contact had yet to occur. Nevertheless, the emotional distress caused by disturbing social media posts and emails can be just as harmful as physical contact and can severely impact quality of life. For her and many others, this means not feeling comfortable performing, appearing in public or even just being outside their home. Further, this kind of online activity is an important indicator for potential violence and thus cannot be ignored. As it turned out, the judge on her case agreed and granted the order.

In today’s world “celebrities” are becoming more and more accessible as the importance of personal brand-building and artist-fan interaction grows. In order to keep up with the changing times, we as representatives must impose new requirements on our client’s staff and team members. It is our duty, especially with respect to female clients, to do everything in our power to ensure their physical and emotional safety and well-being.  Emotional harm is every bit as damaging and worthy of protection as physical harm. In addition to the traditional security measures every artist’s team should have in place, careful monitoring of social media is crucial to the effective protection of our clients.  Moreover, physicality should not ever stand as a barrier to the proactive procurement of a restraining order. 

The emotional harm caused by online activity should always be asserted as a basis for obtaining these kind of protective orders, before the unthinkable is able to occur.

Dina LaPolt, Esq. is the owner of LaPolt Law, P.C., a boutique transactional entertainment law firm in West Hollywood, California that specializes in representing creators, including recording artists, songwriters, producers, musicians, authors, writers, photographers,  actors, and others.  She is an expert at strategizing and solving complex and sophisticated legal and business issues relating to contracts, copyrights, trademarks, rights of publicity, and litigation. 

Lindsay Arrington is a third-year student at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, where she is the Special Projects Editor of the Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice and is concentrating her studies on entertainment, media and intellectual property.