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  (Source: Nation States)
Speechcrime charges on the rise in the U.S., marine is also involuntarily committed for his protest speech

Frustrated with the U.S. "War on Drugs", which he believed was a farce, and with a seeming increase in police violations of U.S. citizens' civil liberties, Matthew Michael created a group on Facebook, Inc.'s (FB) social network targeting the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency with angry statements.

I. Protest the U.S. Government?  Think Again

In one post, he reportedly wrote, "War is near. Anarchy and justice will be sought...I'll kill whoever I deem to be in the way of harmony to the human race...BE WARNED IF U PULL ME OVER!!"

The posts -- while threatening in a vague manner -- did not name any specific DEA agents, or even make any clear plan for violent action.

But the U.S. Department of Justice caught wind of the post and has now been given the go-ahead by a federal judge -- Judge William Lawrence of U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana -- to charge Mr. Michael with three counts of transmitting threats in interstate commerce.

Anonymous Likes Facebook
Protesting the U.S. Gov't on Facebook could land you in prison for 20 years or more.
[Image Source: James Martin/CNET]

Each of those charges, according to 18 USC § 875 (the U.S. Criminal Code) carries up to a 5-year sentence.  Under U.S. criminal law, sentences can be served consecutively or concurrently (see this helpful Yahoo! News post).  The decision of how to assign the sentences, if the defendant is found guilty, is up to the Judge during the sentencing phase.

That means that Mr. Michael faces a maximum prison sentence of up to 15 years, all for speaking out against the government in an incendiary manner in Facebook.

Judge Lawrence argued the case should be allowed to proceed, despite the ambiguous nature of Mr. Michael's comments, writing, "The First Amendment does not insulate all speech from criminal consequence. Certain categories of speech having little or no social value are not protected, and threats are one such category.... It would be inappropriate for the court to enter a verdict of not guilty based solely on the face of the indictment unless the court could imagine no facts that would render Michael's posts unprotected. That is not the situation here."

II. Marine Also Imprisoned Without Trial

The case echoes the story of U.S. Marine Brandon Raub.  After honorably serving his country on tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. Raub, 26, had grown disillusioned with the U.S. federal government, and like Mr. Michael took to posting vague, frustrated, incendiary commentaries to Facebook.  

Those posts led to local authorities and federal agents in Chesterfield, Virginia detaining Mr. Raub and then exploiting the state's involuntary commitment laws to label the protester as "mentally ill", effectively imprisoning him indefinitely and without trial in a state-run veteran's hospital.

Prison
How did the U.S. reward ex-Marine Brandon Raub for honorably serving his country? They locked him up via involuntary commitment rules, all for a protest post he wrote on Facebook. [Image Source: Banmiller on Business]

Such rulings are questionable given that in the 1969 case Brandenburg v. Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, "[T]he constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."

In other words, unless specific, immediate violence is promised, you're free to make statements of protest against the government -- even violent ones.

III. Speech Crime -- a Dark and Dangerous Road

But it's also important to remember that speech is not action, and often times speechcrime legislation -- even mild provisions outlawing threats of imminent violence -- proves merely a vehicle to unload more severe censorship upon the unwitting public.

A critical example Germany's 1933 decision to suspend "the Fundamental Rights" in its Articles of Government if "if public safety and order in the German Reich are considerably disturbed or endangered".  The Third Reich seized the opportunity by staging a fire at the Reichstag building, which they then blamed on protesters/terrorists, leading to a blanket suspension of protest speech against the ruling regime.  That censorship proved critical to the atrocities and oppression that ensued, as the Reich was able to send anyone who spoke out against its policies to prisons or concentration camps.

In other words, treating threats of violence as speechcrime can be cleverly used as a prelude to suspending free speech in general, if the ruling regime can argue that a "terrorist" threat (possibly staged) mandates a broader removal of civil liberties.  Already accustomed to seeing their speech somewhat limited, the public will provide far less resistance.

In a threatening display of power, the Nazi state would eventually commit to a bloody execution via gun and guillotine of convicted "speechcrime" offenders who belonged to the White Rose movement, who had distributed non-violent fliers in Berlin proclaiming, "Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and protection of the individual citizen from the arbitrary action of criminal dictator-states."

Today both of America's ruling parties support so-called "free speech zones", or their various euphemisms, which essentially block citizens' right to directly speak out with words or written signs against politicians at political rallies.

And today Mr. Michael faces speechcrime accusations, which echo those of historic regimes past.  And while he does not face the death sentence for his speechcrime, he does face the prospect of spending over a decade of his life in prison; all for posting something the U.S. government found threatening.

Sources: CNET, Richmond Times-Dispatch





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