Hit & Run

Montana 'Hate Speech' Case Won't Be Prosecuted

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The state of Montana reached a deal with one of its citizens in a case that some observers have called a rare "hate speech" prosecution.

The case, which you can read about in more detail here, involved a 29-year-old short order cook named David Lenio, who sent out a series of vitriolic and, possibly, threatening tweets about Jewish people and killing school children. An out-of-state political activist had reported Lenio to the authorities after noticing the disturbing tweets, and a Flathead County prosecutor charged him with two counts: intimidation and defamation.

Montana's defamation statute outlaws any speech that subjects individuals or groups, classes, or associations "to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation, or disgrace." The county argued that by making statements such as "The holocaust has been proven a lie," Lenio defamed all Jewish people.

Lenio's public defender challenged the law as overly broad, and the judge agreed, dismissing the case. However, the intimidation charge remained, and Lenio faced up to 10 years in jail if convicted.

Because Lenio lived in a small town with a tiny Jewish population and only a couple of schools, his threats against Jews and school children could be considered targeted and credible, according to the prosecution. But Lenio's public defender, Brent Getty, argued that Lenio's tweets were not directed at anyone in particular and would be the equivalent of "back in colonial days, someone yelling on the street corner."

The question of when speech crosses the line into threats, especially in the age of social media, is a difficult one to answer. And in this case, it will remain unresolved. Lenio accepted a "deferred prosecution" deal, meaning that he will not go to trial or face any other punishment as long as he doesn't violate any other laws and keeps his attorney apprised of his whereabouts for the next two years. You can read the agreement here.

Watch the original video on this case below.