There is an interesting case out of Minnesota where alleged gang member Antonio “Savage” Jenkins has been charged with terroristic threats against a police officer. The vehicle used for the alleged threats is rather novel: his arm. Jenkins’ posted a picture of his arm with a tattoo on Facebook that showed a pig with a gun in its mouth, wearing a uniform with a badge number and an officer’s name.
Jenkins is a known member of the Bloods street gang and was angry over an incident but the police say the officer was actually not part of the incident. The police officer saw the tattoo on Facebook and reported it to his superiors. Police says that Jenkins admitted that he knew the tattoo might prompt violence from others.
This presents an interesting example of “violent speech.” A tattoo is clearly a form of speech. Moreover, anti-police sentiments are a classic form of political speech. For that reason, the charge raises free speech implications despite the less than compelling content of the speech or the speaker. In 1969, the Supreme Court ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio that violent speech is protected by the Constitution if a violent act is not imminent. Saying that you wish someone was dead is a juvenile but all-too-common way of expressing profound hatred for views or conduct. You are allowed to pray for the murder of all abortion doctors or hated figures. Indeed, religious broadcaster Pat Robertson once called for the assassination of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
Civil libertarians have long been concerned over the highly generalized language of these provisions. Here is the state provision:
609.713 TERRORISTIC THREATS.
Subdivision 1.Threaten violence; intent to terrorize. Whoever threatens, directly or indirectly, to commit any crime of violence with purpose to terrorize another or to cause evacuation of a building, place of assembly, vehicle or facility of public transportation or otherwise to cause serious public inconvenience, or in a reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror or inconvenience may be sentenced to imprisonment for not more than five years or to payment of a fine of not more than $10,000, or both. As used in this subdivision, “crime of violence” has the meaning given “violent crime” in section 609.1095, subdivision 1, paragraph (d).
The fact that it includes a threat to cause “serious public inconvenience” is an example of breadth and vagueness of the crime. The question is whether this is an act of free speech or a criminal act. What do you think?