Appeals court affirms dismissal of charges over violent e-mail
MICHIGAN–In late January, the majority of a federal appeals panel upheld a 1995 ruling dismissing criminal charges against a former student at the University of Michigan for sending electronic messages on the Internet that expressed a sexual interest in violence against women and girls.
The student, Jake Baker, was indicted under a federal statute criminalizing the interstate transmission of communications threatening injury or abduction of another.
Baker exchanged sexually explicit e-mail messages with an individual in Canada from November 1994 until January 1995. Prior to that, Baker posted fictional stories on the Internet that involved the abduction, rape, torture and murder of women and young girls.
The case originally attracted attention because a woman in one of the stories was given the name of a classmate of Baker’s at the University of Michigan.
Federal District Judge Avern Cohn in Detroit dismissed the indictment, holding that the e-mail messages were hyperbole rather than “true threats” and as such were protected speech under the First Amendment. The government appealed the dismissal.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) declined to address the First Amendment concerns, holding that the statute only applied if a reasonable person would have perceived the communications as a credible threat of imminent bodily harm. The majority held that Baker sent his communications “to foster a friendship based on shared sexual fantasies,” rather than “to effect some change or achieve some goal through intimidation.”
The dissenting judge disputed the majority’s finding that the statute required the threatening communication to be accompanied by an intent to intimidate or coerce someone to attain some change or goal. The judge also argued that under the First Amendment, communications that constitute a threat are not entitled to constitutional protection.
Baker was detained for 29 days following his arrest, and was released after a psychological exam concluded that he posed no threat to the community. (United States v. Baker; Counsel: Douglas Mullkoff, Ann Arbor)