Pando

The government still takes threats against its own more seriously than threats against normal citizens

By Nathaniel Mott , written on June 9, 2015

From The News Desk

The government wants to learn the identities of six people who threatened violence against Katherine Forrest -- the judge who presided over the Silk Road case in New York -- inside the comments section of Reason magazine's website.

Wired has the details about what the Department of Justice is seeking from Reason, and how it plans to charge the pseudonymous trolls, if it finds them:

The subpoena calls for Reason.com to hand over data about the six users, including their IP addresses, account information, phone numbers, email addresses, billing information, and devices associated with them. And it cites a section of the United States criminal code that forbids “mailing threatening communications.” When those communications threaten a federal judge, they constitute a felony punishable by as much as 10 years in prison. (The average internet user has no such protection.)
The parenthetical acknowledgement that this criminal code only protects members of the government is troubling, if only because the implication is that civilians don't deserve the same protections as federal government employees.

It makes sense for the Department of Justice to seek out these commenters. Even if they didn't actually plan to harm Forrest, it's pretty stupid to threaten a judge because she oversaw a case whose defendant is accused of hiring hitmen.

But it seems strange that online threats are usually taken seriously when they're made against a judge, or law enforcement, or other members of government. As I wrote when Facebook, Twitter, and Google warned police of online threats:

 [T]here’s little direct connection, at least in this case, between online threats against police and actual efforts to kill officers or terrorize other law enforcement officials. The arrest of these three men is then justified only by the government’s decision to take the threats more seriously regardless of their veracity or of the three men’s true intentions.

If that’s the case, shouldn’t threats against citizens lead to similar arrests? Shouldn’t the bomb threat against the Utah State University have led to an arrest? How about the threats which drove two female game developers from their homes last October? If digital threats against cops are a crime worth pursuing, these threats should be, too. None of which is to say that digital threats against government employees shouldn't be taken seriously. Just that all threats, regardless of their target, should be treated with at least a semblance of the same sense of urgency.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]