The Department of Justice apparently doesn’t take kindly to website trolls talking about violent acts against judges.
If you were somehow clinging to any doubt about the government’s ongoing assault on dissent, you may now proceed to the backyard to bury it under a headstone in remembrance of the right to free speech. Blustery political rhetoric about killing federal judges in comments posted to an article on the website Reason.com engendered a grand jury subpoena courtesy of the Department of Justice—serving as nearly incontrovertible evidence that Big Brother doesn’t take criticism very well.
Editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie’s article discussing a letter penned to Judge Katherine Forrest by Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht urging leniency prior to her questionable decision to impose two life sentences garnered comments from readers about killing federal judges. Though the pseudonymous comments typified the internet’s quintessential, exasperated hyperbole, the DOJ ostensibly took them seriously enough to demand the libertarian site fork over the emails, phone numbers, IP addresses, and billing information associated with the originating accounts.
“Its judges like these that should be taken out back and shot.”
“It’s judges like these that will be taken out back and shot. FYFT.”
“Why waste ammunition? Wood chippers get the message across clearly. Especially if you feed them in feet first.”
“Why do it out back? Shoot them out front, on the steps of the courthouse.”
“I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that woman.”
“I’d prefer a hellish place on Earth be reserved for her as well.”
These are the comments the government claims substantiate threats—and legal experts and Constitutional scholars are outraged. “In terms of the comments, everybody knows that the Internet is a forum where exaggeration and hyperbole take place,” said Kimberly Chow of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “These comments are in that category. Nobody believes that these people are going to go and put this judge in a wood chipper.”
Of course they don’t. And the stultifying assertion by the DOJ that they somehow constitute threats belies the recent Supreme Court ruling that in order for a comment to delineate an actual “threat,” there is at least some necessity for intent characterized by a “guilty mind” to underlie the statement. “Communicating something is not what makes it ‘wrongful’,” said Chief Justice John Roberts in the decision.
But the DOJ is doubtless aware these callow rants amount to nothing more than cyber balderdash, so the glaringly conspicuous aim of the subpoena is that it “makes a handy pretext for harassing Reason and its commenters,” as Virginia Postrel phrased it in Bloomberg. “Venting anger about injustice is not a crime,” she writes. “Neither is being obnoxious on the Internet”—which is fortunate for everyone, considering its stunning frequency.
Blogger Ken White of Popehat—the self-described “group complaint about law, liberty, and leisure,” where the subpoena originally appeared—posed the question, “Why is the government using its vast power to identify these obnoxious asshats, and not the other tens of thousands who plague the internet? Because these twerps mouthed off about a judge.”
While it is exceedingly unlikely any prosecution will be derived from the flippant diatribes, the result of doling out the writ forces a stunting effect on free speech in the form of self-censorship. Had these same comments been applied to, say, a “state-approved” enemy such as Putin, the government would have a good laugh and go on with business as usual.
Oppression almost never strikes with the force of a sledgehammer. Rather, it is formed over time as seemingly subtle scraps of freedom fall away at the point of a chisel.
The government’s message is remarkably clear: the true threat is your dissent.
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