Former Journalist Sentenced to 5 Years in Case Involving Bomb Threats Against Jewish Institutions

Juan Thompson started with a campaign of falsehoods aimed at his ex-girlfriend, and added the death "either to implicate [her] as the source of the threats or to accuse [her] of falsely accusing him of the threats."

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

I blogged about this when Juan Thompson was first arrested in March, partly because threats against Jewish institutions were so much in the news then, and partly because you don't expect them to come from former employees at prominent journalism sites (here, The Intercept); I therefore thought I'd post this follow-up in the wake of today's sentencing. The judge sentenced Thompson to five years in prison, which was above the recommended Sentencing Guidelines sentence—here's the judge's explanation:

Defendant embarked on a campaign of psychological torture against Victim-1. It was not a one-time error of judgment but a sustained campaign over months that did not stop until he was arrested. Defendant was an intelligent, well-educated individual (Bachelor's Degree from Vassar) who knew and appreciated the nature and consequences of his acts and why they were wrong. He harassed Victim-1, her employer and her co-workers. He spread false information that she had been pulled over for driving while intoxicated, was being sued for transmitting a sexually transmitted disease, had threatened to kill him, had confessed to regularly viewing child-pornography (this was reported by defendant to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children), and had made anti-Semitic connnents. Defendant made false accusations about Victim-1 to the NYPD, ATP and New York State Office of Professions.

Defendant escalated his actions by sending bomb threats and other threats to, among others, Jewish community centers, schools or institutions across the country, including the offices of the Anti-Defamation League in Manhattan, two schools in Manhattan, The Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, a community center in San Diego and a school in Farmington Hills, MI. The defendant's purpose, in the main, was either to implicate Victim-1 as the source of the threats or to accuse Victim-1 of falsely accusing him of the threats. These threats caused terror and fear on the part of the recipients. They also diverted the attention of law enforcement and the organizations who had no choice but to treat the threats as real.

The Court considered defendant's difficult upbringing, including his mother's crack addiction and his father's absence and troubles with law enforcement. He is 32 and has no prior convictions. The Court also considered his alcoholism which was a contributing factor to his crimes. A forensic psychologist retained by the defendant's counsel observed symptoms of anxiety, depression and personality disorder but "[b]ased on the information provided for this evaluation, Mr. Thompson does not meet the criteria for a severe mental illness." He rated the risk for future violence as "moderate," "with a low risk for severe violence and a low risk of imminent violence." …

There is a need for just punishment in this case because the harm to Victim-1 was direct and severe. The harm to the organizations receiving bomb or other threats was also direct and serious. There is a need to protect the public from further crimes of this defendant. With a "moderate" risk of future violence, he is in danger of reoffending. There is an important need to deter others from similar conduct. Cyberstalking of this extreme form can destroy a person's ability to function, to work and to live a normal life. Bomb threats are a harm to society, to law enforcement and to the organizations receiving the threats. They disrupt the public order. They are often difficult to detect and when uncovered they are in need of being deterred….

Note that, while I often criticize "cyberstalking" prosecutions based on otherwise protected speech, the speech that the judge points to here apparently consists either of unprotected true threats of violence or unprotected knowingly false statements of fact.

UPDATE: Here's a CBS News story on the case.

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    1. This report actually seems an effort by Professor Volokh to suggest — misleadingly — that what he calls “unprotected knowingly false statements of fact” were at stake in this case. The federal cyberstalking statute says nothing about “knowingly false statements of fact.” The prosecution and guilty plea in this case were based on the fact that the defendant’s speech was threatening (which is what the statute criminalizes), not on its falsehood.

      Volokh, however, muddies the waters by not reproducing the language of the statute, and by glibly stating that “the speech that the judge points to here apparently consists either of unprotected true threats of violence or unprotected knowingly false statements of fact.”

      Some of us have not forgotten that Volokh tried to get the Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of the “Stolen Valor” statute with a similar argument about knowingly false speech. His analysis of America’s leading criminal “satire” case (see documentation at https://raphaelgolbtrial.wordpress.com/) contained similar declarations, but the courts as well as other commentators have disagreed. The Second Circuit, in fact, has made it clear that email “impersonations” written without the intent to “damage a reputation” are protected speech; and the “damage to reputation” standard itself has been criticized as too vague and broad in view of the Court’s well-known rulings in countless defamation cases.

      1. P.s. some might feel that the glibness noted above also glosses over a failure to seriously confront the shoddy history of criminal libel in this country (and around the world: see the UNHRC’s relevant rulings on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), and to distinguish between “unprotected” speech in the sense of speech that can be the subject of civil actions, and speech that is appropriately punished by jail. (The UNHRC, interpreting Article 19, has held that jail is “never” an appropriate punishment for damage to reputation). This leads to the casual implication that there’s no constitutional problem with criminalizing speech that’s “false,” or that “damages a reputation,” claims that are to say the least highly controversial. I point this out not because I believe that inappropriately deadpan “satire” should be tolerated in an oligarchy such as ours, but merely because the issue merits a far more frank, informed and serious discussion than it has received from Professor Volokh.

      2. I know I’m feeding the troll, but I just feel the need to point out that the Golb situation was about “satire” in the same way that the Las Vegas shooting in October was a music review.

        1. Indeed. Se?or Quixote does seem to be a little intense, doesn’t he?

          1. It takes a special kind of person to make Artie look sane and reasonable.

          2. He’s really tilting at windmills.

          3. For those who just got here since the WaPo move, he’s been making these same obnoxious posts for a very long time.

            1. Apart from Nieporent’s comment, the individuals who posted these quips would do better to reread the last chapter of Don Quixote than participate in my anti-troll campaign the way they’re doing. Volokh is happy to post uncivil remarks by company of this sort, just as long as any serious discussion of the issues raised is avoided. That’s quite a comment on academic culture at UCLA, isn’t it?

              As for Nieporent, I would certainly agree with the implication of his argument: the burden of proof should be reversed in First Amendment cases, with defendants being obliged to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that their intent was satirical, rather than have the prosecution subjected to such an onerous standard. That’s why so-called “liberal” commentators like Professor Hayes, who lack Nieporent’s expertise on satire and related matters, simply don’t understand such cases. See: https://forward.com/opinion/385050/.

  1. Or as the New York Times will probably report it, “Trump Administration Jails Journalist for ‘Fake News’.”

    1. Followed by the W.P, NPR, CBS, etc.

        1. While that’s not specifically spin that blames it on Trump, it’s certainly still left-wing spin. The Washington Post article’s first paragraph says “…after the ex-girlfriend told the court the case shows “domestic terrorism is rooted in violence against women.”

  2. Thanks for that interesting post , while the respectable author of the post , mentions ” balancing of the competing and conflicting needs of different parts of the community ” , it is at the same time mentioned in the post , that the cut in the median had been done , to promote access to the property . Now , if different alternatives , were considered for public purposes ( let alone for safety ) then , one could claim , that we have here , appropriate alternatives , but , when the purpose of Racetrac and the county , had to do with the mere private interest of that corporation , at the back of the safety of the public it seems , we have here , a potential legal duty of that corporation and the county towards that miserable Sewell . Moreover :

    If indeed ” bribery and corruption ” were involved , we have a criminal offense , that surly support negligence or tort as such it seems .

    Thanks

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