The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
Yesterday, federal authorities arrested Cesar Altieri Sayoc, the far-right Trump supporter suspected of mailing bombs to prominent liberal Democratic opponents of Trump. To my surprise, an acquaintance soon pointed out to me that Sayoc is likely the same man who made a death threat against me on Facebook in April of last year. After I did an interview on Fox News about the ways in which public ignorance contributes to opposition to immigration, a person using the name "Cesar Altieri Randazzo" made multiple comments on one of my FB posts, threatening to kill me and my family, and feed the bodies to Florida alligators. The comments even included multiple pictures of alligators. If you think the alligator part is somehow humorous, that may be understandable. But I suspect you would not be laughing so hard if you were the target.
The authorities have now connected the Randazzo Facebook account to Sayoc. And his threats against me were very similar to ones he made on Twitter against political commentator Rochelle Ritchie. In both cases, for example, he claimed to to be a member of the "unconquered Seminole Nation."
In my anger and revulsion at the time, I deleted the threatening comments (in retrospect, a mistake on my part). The "Randazzo" Facebook account now seems to be gone. But many of my Facebook friends saw the the threats, and at least a couple reported them to Facebook as a violation of their policies. Unfortunately, FB did nothing but send back automated form messages [NOTE: but see exception described in my update below]. I also reported the incident to Arlington, Virginia law enforcement and the George Mason University police (at the school where I teach). In case either media or federal law enforcement authorities are interested, I can provide documentation of all of the above, if necessary. It seems to me there is likely already more than enough evidence to convict Sayoc of multiple crimes. Nonetheless, I plan to reach out to the FBI in case my account might prove useful to them.
Sadly, social media and e-mail threats to commentators on political issues are all too common. This was not the first time I got one, and I know other writers who have had far worse experiences, some of which make mine pale by comparison. What, if anything, can be learned from incidents like this? I don't have any definitive solution to the problem. But here are a few tentative thoughts:
First, most such threats are probably meant to intimidate and inflict psychological pain. They are a kind of "troll tax" on public commentary the perpetrators disapprove of. It is, therefore, important that we not allow ourselves to be intimidated. To give in would only encourage more such behavior. For what it is worth, I have continued to write and speak about immigration and public ignorance over the last year, and I have no plans to stop.
Second, social media firms should do more to bar death threats on their sites. In principle, they are already against the rules of Facebook and Twitter. But, too often, nothing is done when such incidents are reported. That is exactly what happened in both my case with Facebook and Rochelle Ritchie's with Twitter. As a general rule, I am not one to join in the currently fashionable trend of beating up on Facebook. They provide an enormously valuable service at virtually no cost to consumers. And I recognize that it is difficult to come up with content standards that are fair to millions of users with highly diverse views. But barring death threats should be a relatively easy case. To put it mildly, they contribute little, if anything, to public discourse. And their prevalence causes fairly obvious harm, and poisons the atmosphere even in cases (which, fortunately, are the vast majority) where the perpetrators have no real intention of making good on their threats.
Finally, we do not yet know to what extent, if any, Sayoc's actions were inspired by Donald Trump's repeated statements condoning violence against his opponents and members of the media. It is entirely possible that Sayoc is the sort of person who would be prone to violence regardless. Nonetheless, here, as elsewhere, Trump's egregious violations of basic liberal democratic norms are deeply reprehensible, and he should be made to pay a high political price for them, lest other political leaders be emboldened to follow in his footsteps.
UPDATE: One of my Facebook friends points out to me that FB did remove one of the photos posted by "Randazzo" in response to her complaint about it. I was not aware of this before, and am happy to note it now. But most of his threatening comments (including even others that this particular FB friend reported) remained in place until I deleted them myself.