The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
From a Justice Department press release yesterday:
A former leader of the Atomwaffen Division in Texas, a racially motivated violent extremist group, was sentenced today to 41 months in prison for his role in a conspiracy that conducted multiple swatting events targeting journalists, a Virginia university, a former U.S. Cabinet member, a historic African American church, an Islamic Center in Arlington, Texas, and members of various minority groups and communities across the United States.
"The reprehensible conduct in this case terrorized communities across our Nation, as innocent Americans simply tried to attend school, practice their faith, and exercise their First Amendment rights," said Raj Parekh, Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "The defendants caused irreversible trauma to the victims of these hate-based crimes. This case sends an unmistakable message that those who target individuals because of their race, religion, or any other form of bias, will be identified, apprehended, and brought to justice."
According to court documents, John Cameron Denton, 27, of Montgomery, Texas, participated in a conspiracy that conducted swatting attacks on at least 134 different locations across the United States between October 2018 and February 2019. Swatting is a harassment tactic that involves deceiving emergency dispatchers into believing that a person or persons are in imminent danger of death or bodily harm and causing the dispatchers to send police and emergency services to an unwitting third party's address. Many of the conspirators, including Denton, chose targets because they were motivated by racial animus.
"Denton's swatting activities were not harmless pranks; he carefully chose his targets to antagonize and harass religious and racial communities, journalists, and others against whom he held a bias or grievance," said Timothy Thibault, acting Special Agent in Charge of the FBI's Washington Field Office Criminal Division. "Today's sentence demonstrates the FBI's commitment to holding accountable anyone who terrorizes communities and threatens public safety by diverting emergency resources, which puts innocent people and first responders at risk."
Conspirators targeted multiple locations in the Eastern District of Virginia, including a then-sitting U.S. Cabinet official living in northern Virginia on January 27, 2019; Old Dominion University on November 29 and December 4, 2018; and the Alfred Street Baptist Church in Old Town Alexandria on November 3, 2018. In each instance, conspirators selected the targets and called emergency dispatchers with false claims of pipe bombs, hostage takings, or other violent activity occurring at the targeted locations. As a result of these swatting calls, police were dispatched to Old Dominion University and the Alfred Street Baptist Church, and individuals in each location were required to shelter in place while the bomb threats were investigated. According to court documents, a conspirator admitted to choosing the Alfred Street Baptist Church as a target because its congregation is predominantly African American.
Additionally, Denton personally chose at least two targets to "swat": the New York City office of ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism; and an investigative journalist who produced materials for ProPublica. Denton chose these two targets because he was angry with ProPublica and the investigative journalist for publishing Denton's identity and discussing his role in the Atomwaffen Division, a U.S.-based violent extremist group with cells in multiple states. The group's targets have included racial minorities, the Jewish community, the LGBTQ community, the U.S. government, journalists, and critical infrastructure.
During the investigation, Denton unknowingly met with an undercover law enforcement officer and told the undercover officer about his role in the swatting conspiracy. Denton stated that he used a voice changer when he made swatting calls and admitted that he swatted the offices of ProPublica and the investigative journalist. Denton also stated that it would be good if he was "raided" for the swatting because it would be viewed as a top-tier crime, and he felt that his arrest could benefit the Atomwaffen Division….
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carina A. Cuellar prosecuted the case.
I haven't followed the case, but, based on the press release, the result seems quite right to me. Knowingly false statements to law enforcement are generally unprotected by the First Amendment, especially when they are designed to lead to needless and potentially dangerous confrontations between the police and innocent third parties. And punishing people who target journalists, religious groups, and universities for such behavior itself helpfully protects free speech and religious freedom (though of course such swatting should be punished even when its targets aren't chosen based on their First-Amendment-protected activities).