First Amendment Fight: Twitter Threat Ends in Conviction

First amendment rights in the United States only go so far. Shout “fire” in a crowded room for thrills or threaten to kill someone and you will find yourself on the wrong side of the First Amendment interpretation of what constitutes free speech. Joseph Cecil Vandevere was indicted, then convicted for posting a Twitter message in March 2018 that threatened then-Virginia State Senate candidate Qasim Rashid.

Vandevere was charged with interstate communication of a threat to injure a person. On Dec. 6, he was convicted by a federal jury for using social media to communicate interstate threats, said Andrew Murray, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.

“Using social media to communicate threats does not qualify as free speech,” Murray said. “A threat is a threat, whether it’s communicated face to face, in writing or online. My office will hold accountable those who use any online form of communication to transmit threats.”

Vandevere’s Crime

On March 13, 2018, Vandevere, using the twitter name of @DaDUTCHMAN5, tweeted a photo of a lynching accompanied by the comment, “VIEW YOUR DESTINY.” The FBI interviewed Vandevere in July 2018, at which time he “admitted to using social media under pseudonyms to send threatening messages.”

Why Did Vandevere Threaten Rashid?

Vandever said he made the threat Rashid because he did not agree with Rashid’s beliefs. The FBI’s search of Vandevere’s residence and computers provided evidence of similar harassment of other entities including a Florida synagogue using an alias Facebook account.

The judge dismissed the argument that Vandevere’s tweet was protected by the First Amendment. Vandevere’s attorney argued that his client wasn’t a threat and “no responsible person would interpret this communication as a serious expression of intent to do harm.”

Well, there’s federal statute 18 U.S. Code § 2261A. Stalking. This statute specifically calls out actions that place a person in reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm. Rashid noted that over the past few years he has referred approximately a dozen threats against him to law enforcement. Vandevere’s threat was the first time one of his complaints evolved to a criminal charge. The threats spike, he said, whenever anti-Muslim rhetoric is shared by the political leadership of the United States.

FBI special agent in charge, John Strong, noted, “Social media allows you to share your views with the world in seconds, but it does not give you the right to threaten violence against others. The FBI stands ready to investigate whenever threatening language crosses the line to a crime.”

Vandevere faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Christopher Burgess

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Christopher Burgess

Christopher Burgess (@burgessct) is a writer, speaker and commentator on security issues. He is a former Senior Security Advisor to Cisco and served 30+ years within the CIA which awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher co-authored the book, “Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost, Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century”. He also founded the non-profit: Senior Online Safety.

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