Jailing Twitter Troll Babak Taherzadeh Goes Too Far
December 6, 2016 (Fault Lines) — If you’re on social media, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered a “troll,” someone who posts incredibly offensive and inflammatory statements just because they can. Usually the most egregious punishment trolls suffer for their online antics is suspension or ban of their social media accounts. Babak Taherzadeh’s punishment for tweeting nasty things about a Texas State District Judge is jail time.
Judge Brandon Birmingham oversaw a harassment case against Taherzadeh earlier this year. His ruling wasn’t favorable to Babak, who took to Twitter and used “at least 10 Twitter accounts” to say nasty things about Judge Birmingham, the jurist’s family, Dallas police, and a Dallas detective. According to the arrest warrant affidavit, those posts caused Judge Birmingham to fear for himself and his family. One such tweet looked like this.
Records show Taherzadeh tweeted on June 8: “Wanna see me bitch slap a State District Judge? I am not one to trifle with.”
It’s difficult to see how that could be construed as a “true threat” any more than the rap lyrics of Anthony Elonis, which included outlandish statements of shooting up a kindergarten class. Maybe that’s why law enforcement decided to go with “felony stalking,” since the elements involve a “scheme or course of conduct” involving multiple events that cause a person to feel “harassed, annoyed, alarmed, abused, tormented, embarrassed, or offended.” Judge Birmingham and his family didn’t need to fear for their lives for a prosecutor to make the charges stick. The statute only requires enough proof to show beyond a reasonable doubt ten twitter accounts saying nasty things “embarrassed” or “offended” a judge and his family.
There’s reason to see why one guy operating ten different Twitter accounts, bombarding a jurist with continued mentions, could be construed as a “scheme or course of conduct” that would make a judge fear for his life and the life of his family. The question remains why that same judge didn’t understand the “block” function Twitter provides.
Nothing in the Dallas Morning News story leads a person to think even a twit like “pray for the death of @JudgeBirmingham” would be objectively or subjectively considered a “true threat” against the Judge or his family. As the extent of Babak Taherzadeh’s twits are not present in the Dallas Morning News story, it’s hard to measure how far Babak went beyond “offending” Judge Birmingham and his family.
Jailing someone for “offending” a judge is troubling. It runs foul of the Supreme Court’s murky holding in Elonis v. United States, where the high court placed more burden on prosecutors to prove a statement transmitted across interstate lines like Twitter was a “true threat.” Simply repackaging the alleged “threat” as “stalking” doesn’t sit any better given that activities like those in which Babak participated occur every day to people with greater influence than a Texas State District Judge. In fact, it makes the entire scenario look far more problematic for Judge Birmingham than the public would think.
Judge Brandon Birmingham is not a sitting President. The Supreme Court held hyperbolic statements concerning shooting a President at a public gathering wasn’t enough to constitute a threat worth jailing a person. Our current Supreme Court requires more proof than “subjective intent” to constitute a threat not protected by the First Amendment. That’s why jailing Babak Taherzadeh over his obnoxious Twitter activity for “stalking” is scary. It smells as if a prosecutor wanted to find the best charge with which to make a judge happy after someone said nasty things online about the person with the black robe and gavel.
There’s good reason to question Babak’s fitness to stand trial. Though he claims he plays a “character” online, in his interview with a Dallas Morning News reporter, Taherzadeh mistook himself for Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban child at the center of an iconic photo regarding American immigration. Babak’s online bluster gave way meekly when standing before a judge on this case. And he’d previously obsessed over a debt his brother-in-law allegedly owed him, going as far as sending text messages one could potentially perceive as threatening over the debt. There is a very real potential that a mentally ill man is sitting in a Dallas jail cell over the commission of an alleged offense he did not understand.
Trolling has its consequences. Those consequences should be limited to the suspension of a social media account or someone being an adult and hitting the “block” button if the trolling becomes offensive to the point where a person can’t take it anymore. Allowing the courts to repackage trolling as “stalking” and claiming fear for your life when you’re actually just “offended” over mean spirited social media behavior sets a dangerous precedent this nation doesn’t need to see.
You have a constitutional right to be a dumbass like Babak Taherzadeh. You also have as right to not be jailed for saying mean things about a public figure.