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Western Pennsylvania man jailed for online threat against policeman

A 30-year-old Jeannette, Pennsylvania man has been in jail since Aug. 18 after a grand jury indicted him on federal charges of threatening a police officer over the Internet. His attorney says the charges violate her client's First Amendment rights to free speech and did not constitute a "true threat" to the officer.

The defendant wrote the Internet posting in question on Craiglist in February. It came after the chief of the Irwin Police Department issued him a traffic ticket for allegedly failing to clear snow off his windshield while driving in that town. Apparently angered by his treatment by the chief, the defendant put up a message where he told the officer to "burn in hell."

The posting called the chief "pompous" and "arrogant." It also referred to "crushing him in that [sic] little pieces" and drowning him in a waterfall. Federal prosecutors later learned of the message and convened a grand jury, which indicted the defendant on a charge of transmitting a threat in interstate commerce via the Internet.

Though the posting is graphic, the very extremity of its message is proof that the Irwin chief's life was never truly threatened, the defendant's attorney said. She explained that the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech, protects criticism of police officers unless the speech is a "true threat" against their lives. Exaggerated statements, "political hyperbole" or statements describing events that won't actually happen - which the attorney said described her client's posting - do not add up to true threats.

Source: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, "Threats against chief called free speech," Richard Gazarik, Oct. 13, 2011

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