So, some Internet trolls have decided to say nasty, vile things about a judge, and they decided to say those nasty, vile things online. This, to say the least, is bad and stupid.
Common sense–and time-honored Internet wisdom which is time-honored for a very good reason–dictate that the best response to this trollish behavior is no response at all. Do not feed the trolls!
The Justice Department, however, is not interested in observing the dictates of common sense and/or time-honored Internet wisdom, which is time-honored for a very good reason. It has decided not only to feed trolls, but to prosecute them as well.
Ken White does an outstanding job–as per usual–in explaining why this is a lousy idea. You should read his blog post. All of it. You should also read Ilya Somin’s blog post, which contains–among other gems–the following apt observation:
. . . To put it mildly, comments such as these are hardly valuable contributions to public discourse. But if federal prosecutors investigated every similar anonymous comment on the internet, we could probably devote the entire federal budget to hunting down these types of blogosphere trolls, and still not find them all.
[. . .]
As a longtime blogger, I have great sympathy for people who get attacked in nasty ways by obnoxious anonymous commenters. Most of us who write for blogs that are at all prominent have had similar unpleasant experiences. But a grand jury subpoena is not the right way to deal with anonymous internet trolls.
You should also read this piece by Virginia Postrel. All of it. Here is an excerpt:
Venting anger about injustice is not a crime. Neither is being obnoxious on the Internet. The chances of one of these commenters being convicted of threatening the judge are essentially nil. Conviction isn’t the point. Crying “threats” just makes a handy pretext for harassing Reason and its commenters.
The real threats aren’t coming from the likes of Agammamon and croaker. They’re coming from civil servants in suits. Subpoenaing Reason’s website records, wasting its staff’s time and forcing it to pay legal fees in hopes of imposing even larger legal costs and possibly even a plea bargain (or two on the average Joes who dared to voice their dissident views in angry tones ) sends an intimidating message: It’s dangerous not just to create something like Silk Road. It’s dangerous to defend it, and even more dangerous to attack those who would punish its creator. You may think you have free speech, but we’ll find a way to make you pay.
I’d like to think that the Justice Department will rethink this silly course of action and drop this incredibly outlandish troll-feeding exercise. But the odds of a rethink may not be all that good. A rethink on this issue would require intelligence, wisdom, and sober, clear-headed judgment. And thus far, we have not seen those attributes on display from the Justice Department.