Department of Justice Subpoenas Reason Magazine Over Angry Troll Comments

Credit: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/user-generated-comments-news-media-bias
Credit: http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/user-generated-comments-news-media-bias

If you haven’t already heard, the Department of Justice has demanded that Reason.com identify anonymous commenters on a Silk Road trial post on their website. The post gathered a lot of angry comments about the New York judge who sentenced Silk Road creator Ross Ulbricht to life in prison for creating an online black market where people could browse and buy things anonymously. Naturally, because this is the Internet, a handful of the anonymous commenters wrote some distasteful things about the judge in an attempt to vent their frustrations.

Some of them got really nasty. One commenter said, “I hope there is a special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.” To which, another commenter replied, “I’d prefer a hellish place on Earth be reserved for her as well.” Then, came the death wishes. “Its judges like these that should be taken out back and shot,” wrote “Alan.” Someone else replied, “it’s judges like this that will be taken out back and shot” and others said putting her through a woodchipper would be a better idea.

Were these comments wise to post on the Internet? No. I’d say not.

The Internet isn’t as private as many people believe. Even if you use a fake name, there’s always a chance that your identity will be discovered and your comments will come back to bite you. The Internet is forever.

Wired reports, “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.)”

Am I surprised by the comments? No, not at all. There’s a popular saying, “never read the comments.” The illusion of anonymity online has people believing that they can say whatever they want behind a computer screen with no real life consequences. Internet comment sections are usually rife with racism, sexism, empty threats, keyboard tough guys, and general edginess. They certainly don’t paint a pretty picture of human nature.

Are these comments credible threats? I highly doubt it.

Maybe I’m desensitized to Internet comments because I’ve been making YouTube videos for years. And yes, I do read the comments. I’ve been told to “die in a fire” more times than I can count. (Get some creativity! Geez.) After a while, you learn to shrug off these kind of comments because they aren’t anything worth taking seriously. They’re just people with boring desk jobs who like to come home and blow off some steam by insulting strangers online. To each their own, I guess.

Anyone who values freedom of speech should be concerned about this Justice Department subpoena. One, it puts the burden on online content creators. Many creators like free flow of discussion and/or don’t have time to make sure that their comment section is squeaky clean. Secondly, it could have a chilling effect where people are afraid to criticize government officials online for fear of government persecution. None of that belongs in a free society.

Julie Borowski

Julie Borowski is a political commentator living in the D.C. area. She is best known for her YouTube channel where she discusses current events in often a humorous manner. She has two cats.

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  • HIV+ Dude

    The thing is they are not threatening to literally have that happen to her. This is just arbitrary BS.

    • http://JulieBorowski.com Julie Borowski

      Agreed. Distasteful, yes. But not serious threats.

      • Tom Kennedy

        Heres the question though. At what point does it become a serious threat? Heres what I envision in the future. At some point, someone does actually follow through on a BS internet post. Then all of a sudden the GOV powers increase following the outcry of an “obvious” threat. Maybe not a judge, but perhaps someone more vulnerable. And the next question is… BS threats on social media already DO get subpoena’d for threats against young people, etc. How is this any different? Just because the judge may be in a less vulnerable position does not mean the person issuing the threat is any less willing. Theres a pretty gray line here. And to be honest, I don’t see a different between a piece of mail and a digital email or post. Like it or not, snail mail is gone. Threats get called in quick via phone and digital devices… Either treat them all as a threat, or not at all.. You want 100% free speech, that’s fine with me. but then no one should EVER have a right to get upset about bullying on facebook (as an example), and that’s never how that situation plays out…

        • Wiggin

          There is a clear distinction between bullying (even online) and just venting or saying insults in public. Bullying requires (as does the actual law) a directed threat, which these comments were not. Online bullies go past just talking and take the next step of actually looking up info about you and then letting you know they’re putting that effort into finding you. That’s when it becomes a threat.

  • Jason Henderson

    The implications are disturbing. Anyone should be allowed to say even the most heinous things without fear of reprisal from the federal government. This is just one in a series of baby-steps towards desensitizing the American people into accepting a totalitarian regime as status quo and “normal”.

    • Max Wright

      well, I’m sure this isn’t a new law. The prohibition against threatening government officials has been around for a long time. It makes sense in a lot of ways, but this particular situation is out of hand.

    • Peloquin

      When you let people sell anything, guess what kind of people you get? It’s not like they don’t know what they are doing and where they are. That kind of crowd would spew death threats like it was a good idea – legal or not.

    • Brian Cobb

      What about a legitimate threat? Or fraudulent claims?

  • Cherie Evans

    Sorry, but it WOULD be different if these comments had been ‘addressed and mailed’ to the judge; that would make it a threat. Just commenting, in a public forum, is the very definition of Free Speech in which our government is NOT allowed to infringe!!

    • Brian Cobb

      Why are you apologizing?

  • Jaye H

    I don’t think threatening to murder somebody, even anonymously as a troll, should be protected speech. I think people cross the line all the time on the internet and there should be consequences for something like this. Now if they subpoenaed people that were just angry, that’s a different story, but asking for the information regarding people that said they “will” kill the judge just makes sense to me.

    • Ed Kline

      But they didnt say they ‘will kill’ a judge.

      • Jaye H

        That’s exactly what one of the comments said. I don’t know the rest of them, but I can agree on that one.

  • David P Mayton

    I wonder if I “liked” some of these comments if I would be implicated as an accessory to the “crime”?

    • ScottLayne

      Wait! Now that I liked YOUR comment, am I now guilty too?

      • Peloquin

        I guess I’m screwed

        • Brian Cobb

          Shit. I hope I get put in a cell with one of you guys.

          • MP

            But not for the prison sex.

      • Lordoomer

        I hope not because also I liked yours.

    • DerpDerpDerp

      They already see it in that light. Seriously, look in to it. They most certainly talk about the level of guilt shared by a person who likes the comment.

    • Mustascheo

      At the very least, you’re now probably on a list somewhere.

  • sephethus

    The state only protects itself and its own. Had the judge been a “normal” and “non special” person with normal clothes on and no magical differences like morality reversing robes of omnipotence, then the comments would be ignored. Destroying lives? No problem, threatening those that destroy lives? Problem. Ugh.

  • Jrad

    Credible death threat attached

  • Leslie Martinez

    Although I do not agree with the comments, wishing death or harm to others against my personal beliefs, I have to wonder about interpretations of them. I would not consider saying something should happen to somebody as a threat. Saying “I am going to …” do whatever, is a threat. That is like saying that a religious person praying to their god for harm to others is a threat of action and that person needs to be prosecuted for making threats.

    • http://JulieBorowski.com Julie Borowski

      Yeah they didn’t say they were going to do it. Good point.

    • Wuz nt Me

      Even further, it was not the judge’s website, not the judges article, etc… There is no reasonable expectation that the judge would ever read it.
      It’s like making a comment about someone while amongst your friends versus making a comment in front of that person.

      • ScottLayne

        Like that sports team owner talking in private with his girlfriend. Got in all kinds of hot water when she blabbed.

  • LonestarFree64

    While I would like it if everyone could be civil online, speaking to you like you were in the same room together, that is not reality. I think this judge would have a difficult time showing it to be a credible threat, and the code cited was written in relationship to postal mail. Putting a stamp on a threatening letter is like putting up earnest money to make a binding contract under this code. Using the code in this fashion is an abuse of power, and the law. The judge was offended that people don’t like her ruling, to bad. When the government uses it’s legislative authority to make laws that stifle the voices of dissent then you have the very definition of tyranny. Using this law in this fashion needs to be addressed by legislators since the ones who wrote it didn’t foresee how it could eventually be used.

  • deth502

    you forgot a “t” there. other than that, good article. i have some extras i can donate to help out the site. here you go :) TTTTTTTTtttttttt

    • ScottLayne

      That makes you deh502

  • Hal Jordan

    Found this old story in my list of saved links. It might be applicable to this situation.

    http://www.wired.com/2010/03/cyberbullying-not-protected

  • Dave Ragozzine

    As someone who was arrested and charged with two felonies over a Facebook post in which I am accused of threatening to assassinate the governor of CT; I should have known better than to think my personal facebook wall was a safe place to vent my personal frustrations about the worst governor in the country. Note, nowhere in my post did I make any threats against the governor or anyone else. The cops perceived a threat and that’s all that mattered. Google my name if you want to verify any of this. The leftist newspapers in CT had a damn carnival with my arrest. Regardless, I will never censor myself and I never have nor never will give up my Constitutional and Human rights in the name of post Sandy Hook, post-9/11 or post-anything security under an Authoritarian regime. My rights trump your concerns and perceptions.

    • Christopher TheCharmer Tillis

      Malloy needs to be executed for treason against the American people. However, we are better than them. We need to act according to the rule of law. We must try Gov. Malloy of CT for treason in a Court of Law, and further respect the judgment of the jury. Our Constitution and values require this! God help and bless our Republic!

      • Dave Ragozzine

        Chris, I agree but seriously, be careful saying what you said in the first sentence. Nobody else needs to go through the legal shit I had to go through over this idiotic governor. He has slit the wrists of our economy and the CT republican party has done nothing to stop the bleeding. We must exhaust all peaceful options and venues before we attempt to make change through violence. I agree, he must face a trial but what are the charges and will a court even take us seriously? It comes down to this: How much are we willing to lose to fight back from this Tyranny, and how much is the state gov’t willing to lose to enforce this Tyranny?

        • Drawer22

          As far as I’ve been able to tell, execution following conviction for treason is reasonable and proper. :-)

          Sic semper tyrannis.

  • gregworrel

    To say that someone should be taken out back and shot is not a real threat. It is an idiomatic figure of speech.

    • http://JulieBorowski.com Julie Borowski

      Dumb thing to say on the Internet but yeah, not a threat.

      • Ed Kline

        Saying it’s a dumb thing to say is irrelevant. We can either say such things or we cannot. My understanding is we can without fear pf reprisal on the part of the government.

        • fusking

          A real threat is usually done silently, as an old saying goes “empty vessels sound louder” and commenting is not suggesting until it is directly addressed and mailed at the intended persons.

    • ScottLayne

      I’ve said that many times. Over highway “designers” and other blithering idiots.

  • Denise429

    Freedom of speech includes freedom of outrage and scary speech.

  • CoolHanc

    This is ridiculous. Hate speech is still free speech.

  • http://betterlivingthroughliberty.com/ Jonathan Rea

    People who comment on Reason know that part of it’s charm is that it is a place for uncensored cathartic release. The comments are obviously hyperbole and yet the humorless petty tyrants at the DOJ have to tighten their grip, more to show off than anything. Who’s never said, “I’m so angry, I could just kill her!” and not *actually* meant it? These guys need to watch 12 Angry Men.

  • Gaijinman

    Here it comes… government goons working on their “who’s naughty and who’s nice list” on time for JADE HELM

  • Christopher TheCharmer Tillis

    This DOJ action is a huge problem. People slam and threaten Judges online all of the time, as that comes with being a Judge! They need to go after the 1 that made the WILL BE statement because they crossed that fine line that is not to be crossed. I even defend that person’s right to say what they did, but freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences. There are consequences for crossing those fine lines!

  • Peloquin

    The hate speech became more of a story than the “Silk” and “Road” thing. Yeah, I don’t want to put those words together now. I never knew about it, but what a stupid idea! He would have had a better chance using a newspaper ad! But of course, asking for the death of someone usually gets the “bad” attention they craved. Not on Julie’s new http://julieborowski.com/! Right?

  • Alexander

    OK… Creativity…

    I hope a bag of cats falls from the sky, claws you to death, cuddles you back to life, and then you are shot in the head with a shotgun because that’s how you deal with zombies.

    I’m sorry, I don’t actually wish death on you. But hopefully that added some diversity to the death threats you’ve received.

    Any other not-actually-death-threats out there?

  • Lars K Tennyson

    It’s called free speech and the justice department is barking up the wrong tree. Same issues will apply as this case. Are the threats “true threats”? Probably not. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/jurisprudence/2014/09/elonis_v_united_states_facebook_free_speech_case_supreme_court_justices.html

  • Dave Lammers

    gee i shouldn’t type something stupid and threatoning next time too you but your not a judge just kidding we love ya we need you to vent frustration with the others in washington

  • Liberty Valence

    The Reason Hit & Run Board has a long and storied past. It is a pretty notorious internet outpost, which might have been part of the problem. I’m guessing the government official monitoring their channel must be new, because these comments were pretty tame, by H&R standards. There is no love for statists there, and putting someone in prison for life for the crime of creating a website would tend to draw fire from a freedom-lovin’ crowd like HnRers. Oppressors gonna oppress.

  • http://tklist.net/ TKList

    What the Department of Justice is really doing is called “intimidation”.

  • Debra

    So now we’re wasting taxpayer money on finding a bunch of online blowhards who are probably wearing high waters, 3 inch thick glasses and living in mommy’s basement. Stupid.