A federal jury found a man who tweeted an offer of $500 to kill an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer was apparently just joking on Friday. The case revisits the issue of what is deemed a credible threat at a time when so much of what we say is online and therefore, searchable and punishable. It also raises the question of whose threats are deemed serious.
“I am broke but I will scrounge and literally give $500 to anyone who kills an ice agent,” wrote Brandon Ziobrowksi in July 2018. “@me seriously who else can pledge get in on this let’s make this work.”
Ziobrowski wasn’t the only one to voice outrage at ICE during that time—public outrage over the Trump administration’s practice of separating families at the U.S./Mexico border was boiling over across the country. But as the Washington Post reports, federal agents found Ziobrowski’s tweet and, though the tweet didn’t make much of an imprint (Ziorbwoski only has 400 followers; the offending tweet had only 2 likes), they accused of him attempting to commit “contract murder.”
Threats aren’t protected by the First Amendment, but the threat needs to be credible: Attorneys for Ziobrowski successfully argued that his tweet was being hyperbolic, noting that he didn’t provide specific details about who, what, where, and when the supposed killing would be committed.
Crucially, Ziobrowski’s history of making declarative, violent statements about people in authority was brought forward by both prosecutors and his attorneys in support of their respective cases.
From the Post:
Federal prosecutors contended that his tweet was “designed to encourage violence and the murder of law enforcement agents,” and alleged in their indictment that it was part of a pattern of menacing behavior. His posts had “become more violent and threatening” over time, they wrote, noting that he had expressed a desire to slit Sen. John McCain’s throat and written that guns “should only be legal for the shooting the police like the second amendment intended.”
But Ziobrowski’s lawyer, Derege Demissie, argued in court filings that his body of tweets actually proved that he had “a history of using vitriol and sarcasm to express his outrage and disgust over what he perceives as government overreach.” He had previously made over-the-top statements like “Hey I haven’t tweeted this in a while but we should still kill the rich and redistribute their wealth” and “I’m not pro death but I literally don’t care about cops,” also tweeting “kill yourself” at President Trump.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Siegmann attempted to argue that the threat was credible by pointing to a Wikileaks list containing names and photographs of thousands of ICE employees, which had been published in the weeks before Ziobrowski’s post. But Ziobrowski made no reference to the list in the tweet, reports the Post.
In an earlier motion to dismiss the case, his attorneys also singled out the federal attorneys’ boss, President Donald Trump (to whom Ziobrowski once wrote “kill yourself” on Twitter) as an example of over-the-top comments going unpunished.
The notion of what constitutes a “true threat” has reared its head several times in recent years. There are, of course, all the President’s tweets. But it’s more salient to see how those without power fare when they insinuate violence toward those in authority. Last year, aspiring Long Beach rapper Mario Chheng was arrested and charged with a felony count of threatening a public official for a series of tweets in which he threatened to “murk our mayor” (he also tagged Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia’s Twitter handle).
“I was saying it, but there was no real intent behind it,” Chheng, who is a Cambodian American, told the Long Beach Post after his arrest. “On the scale of probability, it wasn’t anywhere near above the 50 percent mark. It was just more so having the balls to say it, but at the same time I’m saying it behind a computer screen, so there’s no real balls involved.”
Earlier this year, rappers Killer Mike, Meek Mill, 21 Savage and Chance the Rapper leaped to the defense of Pittsburgh artist Mayhem Mal (born Jamal Knox), who was convicted in 2013 for making terroristic threats and intimidating witnesses because of his song, “Fuck the Police.”
Following a 2012 arrest on weapons and drug charges, Knox’s song named the two Pittsburgh police officers who arrested him, reports CNN. The song featured explicit lyrics, like “I’ma jam this rusty knife all in his guts and chop his feet,” and “Well your shift over at three and I’m gonna fuck up where you sleep.” Knox appealed the jury’s conviction, which was upheld by a Pennsylvania state appeals court in 2018.
Knox, who is black, argued that the song was protected under the First Amendment, an opinion that was backed up by industry heavyweights in a legal brief filed in March in support of the rapper. They called the song a “political statement” and likened it to poetry, noting that words are chosen for how they fit into a line’s rhythm and delivery, rather than for their literal meaning.
“No reasonable person familiar with rap music would have interpreted as a true threat of violence,” the brief read.
The Supreme Court had the option earlier this year to parse out what makes a threat a “true” one, had they decided to take on Knox’s case. The high court declined.