How far can you go on social media before it breaks the law?
Where is the line between simply talking on social media, even speaking in the spirit of a prank, and being considered a full threat to safety? Monroe’s Dakota Reed found out. He will now spend a year in jail.
Reed was charged with two felony counts of threat to bomb or injure personal property in April. He had taken to, quite often, posting photos of himself on social media with weapons and Nazi paraphernalia. In one photo, he is seen wearing a gas mask in front of white supremacist flags, while holding a crucifix and an AR-15 style rifle. He would write threats to kill Jews in a synagogue or at a school. Sometimes he would use fake Facebook pages for his posts.
“I’m shooting for 30 Jews,” he wrote on Nov. 11, 2018. He also talked about “pulling a Dylann Roof,” in reference the man convicted of mass murder at a Charleston church.
Reed also posted his membership forms for the Ku Klux Klan, and wrote about the formation of a white ethnostate in the Northwest (an effort among white supremacist that goes back decades). The online activity prompted the Anti Defamation League to report Reed to the police. That led to charges and to court, where Reed pleaded guilty.
According to the Everett Herald, Reed said “I would just like to apologize and let you know I’m remorseful,” when he spoke in Snohomish County Superior Court this week.
Talking on social media?
But among all the social media activity, Reed never directed his rhetoric at specific names or places. There was a lingering question as to whether Reed’s case would make it through court given the lack of targets.
There is little to wonder about, according to former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna.
“The way the statute is written, it says it is unlawful for any person to threaten, to bomb, or otherwise injure any public or private school building, any place of worship, or place of assembly, and then it goes on to list other things like government property,” McKenna told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross.
“It isn’t clear … whether you have to name a specific public building or place of worship, or if it is enough for you to threaten in general to bomb or injure in such a location,” he added.
McKenna says that the authors of this particular state law anticipated that someone would say they were joking, that they weren’t serious. So the statute also states that claiming everything was just a hoax is not a defense, even on social media.
Reed did have a small arsenal of weapons, including an AR-15 style weapon.
“The person who hears your threat isn’t going to know if you actually posses the firearm, or grenade launcher,” McKenna said. “It’s really a question of whether or not someone hearing the threats would reasonably believe them to be credible.”
“The law is constructed to protect First Amendment rights to espouse even the most hateful views, even if they are political in nature,” he said. “At the same time we need to draw a line between espousing political views, making a political argument, and making a serious threat. I think a pattern of behavior can add up to a threat. Even one statement can be a violation of this statute if it is strong enough and clear enough.”