Is it free speech or a threat when you post a message online that says, “kill all white cops”? That’s the question that was put before Wayne Circuit Judge Vonda Evans on Wednesday.
Nheru Littleton, 40, is charged with making a terroristic threat and using a computer to commit a crime; charges which each constitute 20-year felonies. An employee of the Ford Rouge Plant in Detroit, Littleton and three other Detroit residents were arrested in July after allegedly posting anti-cop rhetoric on social media. Littleton allegedly composed his messages July 9 from the Waldorf-Astoria’s El Conquistador resort in Puerto Rico.
According to an article in The Detroit News, State prosecutors argued that “it doesn’t matter whether Littleton intended to actually carry out any alleged threats, because his posts caused police to feel threatened.”
On the other hand, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union working on Littleton’s behalf said that seeing multiple reports on the news about police officers allegedly shooting and killing black people “traumatized” the defendant. The attorney further stated that the alleged Facebook posts were his way of “lashing out” against what he thought was a great injustice.
In separate cases for three of the defendants, Prosecutor Kym Worthy said their alleged posts weren’t crimes and did not charge them. However, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced he was bringing terrorism charges against Littleton two months later for allegedly writing: “F them racist a__ cops!!! Kill them ALL. Black Lives Matter. Black people should start killing all white cops just like they are killing us!!! Then and only then will this s___ stop. Why you ask? Because white people will be dropping like flies!!!”
Littleton’s attorney Leon Weiss called the posts “hyperbole” during the hearing, saying that the statements he made “do not constitute a true threat.” Weiss added, “There was never any specific police department or individuals who were named.”
Wayne Circuit Judge Vonda Evans said that it’s immaterial whether Littleton intended to carry out a threat, according to Michigan law. “The standard is whether any reasonable person would feel threatened,” she said, pointing towards several recent examples of violence against police; enough to cause officers to worry about such violent posts on social media.
“The ACLU of Michigan filed a brief in support of Weiss’ motion,” said the report. “Evans said she would rule on the motion March 14, after she reviews case law. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys attached to their filings previous rulings involving similar cases nationwide, but Evans said none of them addresses whether social media is legally considered to be a public forum, which she said ‘is a different analysis when you’re talking about protected speech.'”
ACLU attorney Daniel Korobkin argued, “If there’s one thing that distinguishes a free society from a police state, it’s the ability to sometimes offensively condemn the police in the harshest manner without risking arrest and prosecution.”
Korobkin asked the judge to consider the events of last summer, claiming that the country was “collectively traumatized by act after act after act of police brutality.” He said, “They were often captured on camera, broadcast on television. I will never be able to truly understand what it must feel like for a young black man to see that happening in this country; to hear about death after death. That’s the real-life context for the rage, the frustration, the anger that someone like Mr. Littleton has. He didn’t lash out with acts; he lashed out with speech.”
The judge stated on Wednesday that the context of Littleton’s messages matter, because they were posted just hours after five Dallas police officers were killed by a sniper during a protest against police shootings. In fact, Littleton had attached a news video of the police shooting to his post, which also stated: “All lives can’t matter until Black Lives Matter!!!! Kill all white cops!!!!”
“(Police) are a group of people who want to go to work and come home alive,” said Judge Evans. “As lawyers, we worry about where we’re going to eat; it’s never a consideration will I leave my shift alive. And faced with that, when you have people who have been targeted; and when you have your client, who attached the Dallas video of the shooting of the police, it’s not only inflammatory, it’s dangerous.”
She also noted that in Littleton’s Facebook profile, he described himself as a “former killing machine and Marine recruit.” Which along with the fact that the man had a concealed pistol license, would cause any “reasonable person” to feel threatened. And under Michigan law, it doesn’t matter whether or not the person intended to actually carry out that threat. “The standard is whether a reasonable person would believe they were being threatened,” she said.
When Detroit police heard about the violent threats posted on Facebook, department-wide memos warning officers to be careful were issued. Evans said that this was proof that officers felt threatened.
According to Assistant Attorney General Richard Cunningham,“The basis of a true threat is putting another person in fear, whether you intend to do it or not,” he said. “I will concede that he did not intend to (kill police officers), but he sure intended to place people in fear. When you see a post that says ‘I’m a killing machine,’ and he posts this ‘kill white cops’ message several times, it’s clear he wanted to put people in fear.
“It did cause the fear he intended to cause,” added Cunningham, “This is not protected speech. All he needs is an intent to place them in fear; that’s the harm this statute addresses. The killing machine who posts about killing white police officers is not protected by the Constitution.”
H/T: The Detroit News
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