Blogger Calls for Murder of Mitt Romney, Arrested
A Philadelphia-area blogger has been arrested after he created Facebook pages calling for the murder of two city officials.
Joshua Scott Albert, 26, who intermittently ran a popular and abrasive restaurant gossip blog, surrendered to police last month after he made pages on Facebook in favor of the deaths of the city’s district attorney and head of police union. He was charged with criminal solicitation to commit murder, terroristic threats and harassment.
The blogger also created a similar page calling for the murder of Mitt Romney.
The dispute started after the murder of off-duty Philadelphia police officer Moses Walker Jr. in August. Two men were arrested for the crime, and Albert, who has a history of antagonizing locals, promptly created a “I Support Chancier McFarland & Rafael Jones” Facebook page celebrating the alleged cop-killers with images and jokes of dead police officers.
When officials spoke out against the page and indicated that Albert could face charges, he did not back down. Instead, he put up pages titled “Kill John McNesby,” described as “calling for the murder of Philadelphia Police Union President John McNesby,” and “Kill Seth Williams,” described as “calling for the murder of Philadelphia District Attorney.”
A threat too far? The DA put out a warrant for Albert’s arrest, and the blogger, who had been in hiding in New England, turned himself in Sept. 20 to face charges for all three pages. He hasn’t been charged for the Mitt Romney page, although the Secret Service has indicated that it is aware of the incident.
Death Threats as Protected Speech?
Albert defended his caustic brand of disestablishmentarianism as an exercise in freedom of speech. “I intend to to fight these ‘alleged’ charges and stand up for the 1st amendment [sic],” he wrote on his blog before apologizing to the slain officer’s family.
“The charges, in my opinion, violate the First Amendment,” said his attorney, Lloyd Long III, to a local paper. “This is free speech. It is parody and satire, all of which is protected under the First Amendment, which also protects offensive speech and vulgar speech. There were no serious threats that were ever communicated, no serious requests for any harm.”
But is calling for the death of public officials, in so many words, really considered protected speech? It depends, says Jeffrey P. Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University.
“The interesting question here has to do with intent,” Hermes says. “The standard for a true threat is it’s a statement that actually causes someone to fear the threat will be carried out, as opposed to a vague statement existing in a vacuum.”
So far, sounds good for Albert. It’s unlikely anyone used to his attention-seeking blog posts would believe he really intended to kill anyone. However, he’s not off the hook yet. “Statements merely intended as rhetorical hyperbole are supposed to be protected under the First Amendment,” explains the law professor. “However, statements which are intended to intimidate, even if the speaker or the writer doesn’t intend to carry out the threat, could be considered true threats not protected by the First Amendment.”
In the 2003 Supreme Court decision Virginia v. Black, the court ruled that cross burning could be a criminal offense if intended to intimidate or inspire fear of bodily harm. “The speaker doesn’t actually need to intend to carry out the threat,” Hermes says. “It can be merely whether the statement was intended to be intimidating, as opposed to merely being a crude blunt method of expressing dissatisfaction with a politician’s activity or positions.”
Albert’s fate is up to the court to decide. Bail is set at $300,000.