“Kill your senators”: a New York lawsuit tests the limits of freedom of expression

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New York | Can we, in times of extreme political tensions, call with impunity to kill American elected officials on social networks, and then argue for freedom of expression? A popular New York jury will have to decide, after a week of hearings which made him relive the attack on the Capitol on January 6.

Brendan Hunt, alias “X-Ray Ultra”, 37-year-old court worker, is accused of “threatening to kill” elected members of the US Congress – including Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer and young Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) – with “the intention to interfere in the performance of their duties” or “to take revenge for having fulfilled them”.

In question, several messages posted on various social networks: the first goes back to December 6, 2020, on Facebook, when he calls Donald Trump, then president, to organize “a public execution of Pelosi, AOC, Schumer, etc” and to ” go down and strafe these Communists ”. “If you don’t, the citizens will. ”

The last date of January 8, two days after the attack on the Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump, who rejected the certification of the victory of Joe Biden in the presidential election.

Hunt then posted an 88-second video on the far-right-popular BitChute platform titled “Kill your senators”, in which he said, facing the camera, “We need to get back to Capitol Hill, and this time we come with our weapons … What you have to do is arm yourself, go to Washington, probably for the nomination (…) and put bullets in their heads. “

Simple “diatribes”?

After the “insurrection” of January 6, the FBI urgently deploys all its nets to stop the rioters. Among the thousands of calls then received by the federal police, one alerted him to the existence of this video.

Brendan Hunt, son of a retired judge who presents himself as an actor, musician and journalist, was arrested on January 19, the day before Joe Biden’s inauguration, at his home in the New York neighborhood of Queens. But the agents found no weapons or proof of involvement or communication with an extremist group at his home.

And prosecutors admit that Hunt was neither on Capitol Hill nor even in Washington.

So, were the threats from Brendan Hunt – who quoted “Mein Kampf” in a text and said he had to take power “like Hitler” – were they serious, did he really intend to attack the elected officials? Or were they mere “diatribes,” opinions he had every right to “say,” “shocking as they are,” under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, as the lawyers have claimed. systematically?

Comments from a man who admitted alcohol problems before jurors, and who had just 99 subscribers to his video channel?

“The First Amendment does not protect” from such threats, said prosecutor David Kessler in his indictment on Wednesday.

“The government does not need to prove that the accused tried to kill” an elected official, the mere fact of “uttering the threat is an offense,” he said. Even if it is launched on social networks, and not addressed directly to the people targeted, he added.

To make the jurors feel that the threat was “real”, the prosecutors replayed during the trial a video of the attack on the Capitol, and cited as a witness a police officer from the Capitol, who testified about the “surreal” day of the 6th. January, and had been informed of Hunt’s messages.

But the lawyer for the accused, Leticia Olivera, argued that “nobody took” his messages seriously, and that he himself had withdrawn his video on BitChute after 24 hours, after several criticisms of Internet users including the the latter called him a “clown”.

“I don’t know why the FBI got so wrong about Brendan,” she told jurors and judge Pamela Chen. “They saw it as very dangerous, when there was no need. It sometimes happens with the police … “

Jurors began deliberating at midday on Wednesday.

More than 400 people have been arrested by the FBI in the United States for participating in the attack on the Capitol. This federal trial was the first to evoke these events.