Venkat Balasubramani at Technology & Marketing Law Blog has a good analysis of U.S. v. Michael, (S.D. Ind., Oct. 9, 2012), a case which rejected a Facebooker’s attempt to dismiss an indictment for threatening posts directed at the DEA. (That’s “Drug Enforcement Agency” for our overseas readers). Read Balasubramani’s post for background. Here I want to add my opinion.
I agree with Balasubramani that there has been “a disturbing number of cases that involve criminal liability for these types of statements posted online.”
But I’m less troubled by the indictment in this particular case.
Here’s what Michael posted to Facebook, broken down:
These guys will get whats coming to them … My master assures me that the DEA will be exterminated and humiliated before the end is over …
No true threat there. It sounds like Michael is “threatening” the DEA with the a return of Christ. That’s not a real threat, and it should be protected speech. Next:
WE R COMING FOR YOUR PIG ASS. The only thing the DEA knows how to do is lie and deceive … Its time we answered there crimes with bloodshed and torture.
We are getting closer to a true threat here. But nonetheless, I think that this is sufficiently general that it should be protected speech. For most crazy anti-law-enforcement speech, including the above statements, I think the correct response – and the one the law ought to sanction – is to get a warrant and monitor the person. But then there’s this:
I’ll kill whoever I deem to be in the way of harmony to the human reace … Policeman all deserve to be tortured to death and videos made n sent to their families … BE WARNED IF U PULL LE OVER!! IM LIKE JASON VOORHEES WITH A BLOODLUST FOR PIG BLOOD.
This is where I think we have something that the government ought to be able to prosecute. Michael has indicated a desire to kill a law enforcement officer at a traffic stop. That is something that could happen instantly, without further warning. And while the feds might be monitoring Michael and thus would not be caught flatfooted, a local police officer might not be. Using threat laws prophylactically to take a person off the street under such circumstances seems to me a reasonable means to avoid a tragedy. Moreover, the speech value of this particular language is low.
Threats directed at the government ought to be accorded more tolerance than threats directed at a private person. For a private person, the threat itself can constitute a significant psychological harm. When it comes to threatening speech directed at the government, I am more comfortable if threat laws are used in a preventative capacity.
Admittedly, threat laws are not closely calibrated to a preventative role. Once the threat is dissipated, the conviction will remain. Threat laws punish speech. And that being the case, I continue to find them concerning. But their application in this circumstance, at least, seems appropriate to me.
By the way, I had to look up Jason Voorhees. He’s the hockey-mask wearing Jason from the Friday the 13th movies. I guess I’m out of it – at least when it comes to 1980s-spawned horror franchises – but I, personally, was thrown off by the use of his last name.