He brags about it, he is proud of it, he put it on his Facebook page, and now he’s going to be held accountable for it. The only reason that was done was to upset people. And if he wanted to engage in that kind of behavior, there’s consequences. — District Attorney William Higgins
A 1972 Pennsylvania law makes it a crime (a misdemeanor) to “intentionally desecrate any public monument or structure, or place of worship or burial.” That same law criminalizes the behavior of anyone who “intentionally desecrates any other object of veneration by the public or a substantial segment thereof in any public place.”
Here is the relevant definition: “Desecrate.” “Defacing, damaging, polluting or otherwise physically mistreating in a way that the actor knows will outrage the sensibilities of persons likely to observe or discover the action.” (See here for a list of similar desecration laws.)
Bedford County District Attorney William Higgins (FB re-election page here) has invoked that law to go after a 14-year-old boy who allegedly placed photos of himself “placing his crotch near the mouth of a statue of Jesus in prayer on Facebook. The allegedly victimized Jesus statue sits in the front yard of Love In the Name of Christ, a Christian organization in teen’s hometown of Everett, Pa.”
As reported in the Altoona Mirror, and as Mr. Higgins is said to have written on his Facebook page: “”I guess I should take solace in the fact that the liberals are mad at me – again. As for this case, this troubled young man offended the sensibilities and morals of OUR community. … His actions constitute a violation of the law, and he will be prosecuted accordingly. If that tends to upset the ‘anti-Christian, ban-school-prayer, war-on-Christmas, oppose-display-of-Ten-Commandments’ crowd, I make no apologies.'”
→ “Apparently, Mr. Higgins is unaware that the statue isn’t actually Christ, or even a revered piece of art depicting Jesus,” says columnist Drew Johnson writing in the Washington Times. “It’s just a painted piece of concrete mass produced from a mold and sold at flea markets, garden shops and home improvement stores across America. In fact, a slightly smaller version of the statue is available on Sears’ website for $225.” While that may be, the statue does nonetheless resemble what is often thought to be a Christ-like figure.
→ “There are some serious First Amendment issues with this statute” if merely gesturing next to an image is enough to be charged,” said Sara Rose, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
→ Professor Eugene Volokh, who first blogged on this story, argues: (1) by its terms, it is arguable whether the statute has been violated; (2) the law might be impermissibly vague; and (3) the law, on its face or as applied, may run afoul of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
→ “Bedford County President Judge Thomas S. Ling said the next set of juvenile court hearings is scheduled for Oct. 3rd.”
Tenth Circuit rules in “true threats” case
Writing for a three-judge panel in United States v. Heineman (10th Cir., Sept. 15, 2014), Judge Harris Hartz (joined by Judge Robert Bacharach with Judge Bobby Ray Baldock concurring in the judgment) reversed the Defendant’s conviction in a “true threats” case,this even while the same general issue in the case is soon to be decided by the Supreme Court in Elonis v. United States.
Facts: “In 2010 and 2011 Defendant sent three e-mails espousing white supremacist ideology to a professor at the University of Utah. The first two e-mails did not contain threats, but the third made the professor fear for his safety and the safety of his family. Entitled “Poem,” it began by addressing the professor by his first name, and contained the following language:
Come the time of the new revolution
we will convene to detain youAnd slay you,
by a bowie knife shoved up into the skull from your pig chin
you choke, with blood flooding in your filthily treasonous throat!
We put the noose ring around your neckand drag you as you choke and gasp
The noose laid on the tree branch and the fate hath conferred justice for Treason
You are a filthy traitor along the horde of anti-American and anti-Whitey comrades
whose justice shall come to be delivered To fuck the traitors, for justice! fuck Mexico! fuck South America!
Fuck your soul to Hell!
Into the furnace pool of MexiShit as the filthily traitorous asshole and puta!
“Law-enforcement officers traced the e-mail to Defendant through his e-mail address, which had the user name “siegheil_neocon.” Id. at 91. When officers contacted him in writing, he responded immediately, “Is this about the email?” Id. He was charged in the United States District Court for the District of Utah with one count of sending an interstate threat, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 875(c).”
Against that factual backdrop, Judge Hartz declared:
[T]o say that the effect on the listener supports a “threat” exception to the freedom of speech does not mean that no other considerations come into play. For example, it may be worth protecting speech that creates fear when the speaker intends only to convey a political message. As we understand Black, the Supreme Court has said as much. When the speaker does not intend to instill fear, concern for the effect on the listener must yield. In short, despite arguments to the contrary, we adhere to the view that Black required the district court in this case to find that Defendant intended to instill fear before it could convict him of violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). [footnote omitted] [re Defendant Heineman, see news story here]
While Judge Baldock concurred in the judgment, he declined to reach the First Amendment issue and instead grounded his opinion on statutory grounds: “The question presented in this case is whether § 875(c) requires the Government to prove a defendant’s subjective intent to threaten. The court concludes the First Amendment requires such proof. But to my mind we should resolve this case without resorting to the First Amendment by simply construing the statute’s text. Indeed, we are duty bound not to reach constitutional questions unnecessarily even if the parties ask us to do so.”
→ The case was successfully argued by Benjamin McMurray, Assistant Federal Public Defender (Kathryn Nester, Federal Public Defender, with him on the briefs), District of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.
→ Questions: One wonders how the ruling in this case might affect the judgment and the analysis in Elonis. For example, will the facts prompt some of the Justices to be more guarded in their First Amendment analysis? Will the Heineman ruling further encourage some of the Justices to dispense with Elonis on statutory grounds? Or, will the Heineman ruling dissuade them from ruling in Mr. Elonis’ favor on either statutory or First Amendment grounds? Or are the facts in Elnois readily distinguishable such as to sustain the Defendant’s claims, either on statutory or constitutional grounds? Finally, if cert. is sought in Heineman, perhaps the Justices will remand it for consideration in light of whatever they do in Elonis. Meanwhile, one thing seems likely: the Heineman facts may well find their way into the oral arguments in Elonis.
→ Note: The Heineman majority declined to follow the ruling of the Sixth Circuit in another “true threats” case — United States v. Jeffries, 692 F.3d 473, 477–81 (6th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, 134 S. Ct. 59 (2013). That case, it should be noted, was also discussed at some length in the government’s reply brief in Elonis as well as in the ACLU’s amicus brief in that case.
(Hat tip to Joan Bertin)
Free expression cases on Court’s Conference docket Read More