There is a very disturbing first amendment case this week in Knoxville, Tennessee where a federal jury convicted Army Sgt. Franklin Delano “Dale” Jeffries II of threatening Knox County Chancellor Michael W. Moyers. The threat came in a juvenile song that Jeffries posted — raising very serious concerns over free speech.
The jury only took two hours to convict Jeffries, 36, of transmitting a threat in interstate commerce because he put the song on the Internet. For the video, click here. Notably, Jeffries never sent the video to Moyers. Moreover, the song was only on the Internet for one day. Jeffries appears to have been convicted due to one line on one song posted for one day on the Internet. That song stated “Believe that, or I’ll come after you afterwards. If I have to kill a judge, or a lawyer, or a woman, I don’t care, because this is my daughter we’re talking about.” This line is repeated.
Jeffries was before Moyers in a visitation dispute over his daughter with his ex-wife. He could face five years in prison.
I believe the first amendment problems in this conviction undermines its basis. This is a nine-minute video of this soldier venting. If this can be treated as an interstate threat, my concern is that a wide array of speech can be criminalized. The video is disturbing and I can see why the judge felt threatened. However, it was briefly posted and the element of intent is difficult to establish. If allowed to stand, the conviction could become the foundation for attacks on free speech. Judges are public figures and criticism of their decisions is part of protected speech. We have seen increasing crackdowns on lawyers and laypersons for such criticism.
This is an important case to watch, in my view.