Silk Road Backlash Earns Reason Magazine a Federal Probe

EspañolIs wishing the death of a public official online off limits? This seems to be the opinion of the US Department of Justice, which has ordered the libertarian Reason magazine to turn in information about six anonymous commenters on their website.

On June 2, the US Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York sent Reason a grand jury subpoena, compelling the magazine to show up to federal court with information on users suspected of committing a felony — allegedly issuing death threats against a judge.

The article where the controversial comments were posted defended online black market Silk Road, and reproduced a letter sent by its creator Ross Ulbricht to Judge Katherine B. Forrest.

sfdf (Captura de Pantalla de la citación).
One of eight comments reproduced in the subpoena citation. (US Department of Justice).

On May 29, Judge Forrest sentenced Ulbricht to life in prison without the possibility of parole, for crimes including conspiracy to traffic in narcotics and money laundering. The letter — reproduced in the article authored by Reason editor in chief Nick Gillespie — sought to plead with the judge for a less harsh sentence, to no avail.

In October 2013, federal authorities shut down Silk Road and arrested Ulbricht for operating an illicit online market for drugs, guns, and other criminal activities.

The citation signed by federal prosecutor Preet Bharara ordered Reason to show up in court on June 9, but the magazine’s staff are yet to indicate whether they complied.

While, according to the subpoena, they don’t have an obligation not to divulge anything heard in court, prosecutor Bharara asked them “not to make any disclosure in order to preserve the confidentiality of this investigation and because disclosure of the existence of this investigation might interfere with and impede the investigation.”

Ulbricht fue condenado a prisión de por vida sin posibilidad de salida por haber creado el sitio web "Silk Road" que subastaba drogas y armas (Motherboard)
Libertarian commenters were angered by Judge Forrest sentencing Ross Ulbricht to life in prison for providing an online marketplace. (Motherboard)

What makes these comments supposedly different from everyday online chatter is that prosecutors believe they threatened a judge: a federal crime, provided it can be proved they were real and credible threats. The felony carries a jail sentence of up to 10 years.

The targeted users who deemed the sentence against Ulbricht unfair and vented on the Reason article are “Agammamon,” “Croaker,” “Rhywun,” “ProductPlacement,” “CloudBuster,” and “Alan.” Their comments have since been removed.

Gillespie declined to comment on the subpoena, but Bloomberg View reported his description of the letter as “haunting.”

Among the information Reason will be required to hand over are: IP addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, billing information, and bank and credit-card records.

“Failure to attend and produce any items hereby demanded will constitute contempt of court and will subject you to civil sanctions and criminal penalties, in addition to other penalties of the Law,” reads the letter.

Threats or Hyperbole?

“Its judges like these that should be taken out back and shot,” wrote Agammamon. In the same vein, Alan replied: “It’s judges like these that will be taken out and shot. FTFY.”

Croaker contended: “Why waste ammunition? Wood chippers get the message across clearly. Especially if you feed them in feet first.”

Rhywun contributed his “hope that there’s special place in hell reserved for that horrible woman.”

“I’d prefer a hellish place on Earth be reserved for her as well,” added ProductPlacement.

Virginia Postrel, a former editor of Reason during the 1990s, said in an opinion piece for Bloomberg View that “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,” she wrote.

Rebekah Johansen, a contributor at Rare, insisted that these kind of comments are nothing more than hyperbole and bravado. Real threats “include details on who will be doing the violence and when it will occur. They include some plan or inkling that one exists,” Johansen said.

Legal scholar Ken White pointed out that non-credible threats fall under the protection of the First Amendment, which prohibits the US government from limiting free speech.

Translated by Daniel Duarte. Update: 9:30 p.m. EDT, June 12, 2015.

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