A New Hampshire man accused of threatening to “impale” and “disembowel” political candidates over text message says most of his charges should be dropped because the alleged screeds weren’t “true” threats but protected speech under the First Amendment.
Tyler Anderson, 30, was indicted on three counts of interstate threatening communication in December. The texts were sent to then-Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and, as it was later widely reported in the wake of his arrest, to Chris Christie as well. Ramaswamy dropped out of the race in mid-January. A third candidate allegedly targeted by Anderson was left unnamed in court records.
Ahead of a breakfast meet-and-greet event on Dec. 11 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, prospective voters received a text from Ramaswamy’s campaign inviting them to attend. The text featured a “reply to Stop” option.
Instead of ignoring or “replying to Stop,” according to court records, Anderson responded: “Great! Another opportunity for me to blow [the Candidate’s] brains out!”
In a separate message, he replied: “I’m going to kill everyone who attends and then f— their corpses.”
The FBI said a campaign staffer was able to help the agency and the Portsmouth Police Department confirm that the number sending the texts belonged to Anderson. His home was later searched on Dec. 9 by federal agents executing a search warrant. They seized his cellphone and located the threatening messages within a “deleted folder, ” an affidavit states.
Police said that when Anderson was arrested, he admitted to making the statements. But now, as a trial date is on the verge of being set, a lawyer for Anderson has filed a motion to dismiss one of the charges arguing that the “impale” and “disembowel” text wasn’t really a threat and that police improperly searched his devices.
“[T]he indictment alleges that Mr. Anderson sent a series of text messages to [a political candidate] containing a ‘threat to “impale” and “disembowel”‘ the candidate,” the motion says. “The indictment omitted relevant language that meaningfully qualified Mr. Anderson’s response to the campaign outreach as crude opposition; specifically, that [the candidate] ‘deserved to get impaled’ and that ‘disembowelment would work too.’”
In the motion, Anderson’s lawyer argues that though her client confirmed with police during his arrest that he sent texts which were “over the top,” she also claims he only did it so the automated messages would stop coming. He had received at least 30 between July 2023 and December 2023, federal public defender Dorothy Graham wrote.
The First Amendment does not protect obscenity nor does it protect defamatory language, Graham argued in the 10-page motion.
Nor does it protect incitement.
In fact, she acknowledged, the law does permit the prosecution of “true threats.”
But those can only be defined as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals,” she argued.
This is distinguishable from political speech and, specifically, “offensive” or hyperbolic political speech, according to Anderson.
Factors such as “tone” as well as the audience receiving the message or the broader context in which the threat occurs must factor in, too.
“Accordingly, the Supreme Court has extended First Amendment protection to a conditional commitment to shoot the President at a rally against police brutality, cross-burning absent intimidatory intent at a rally of aggrieved Ku Klux Klan members, and a call to ‘break [the] damn neck’ of individuals crossing a boycott line,” Graham wrote.
Though a jury will determine whether there was a “true” threat made in Anderson’s messages, he argues that, at least on the first count, his threat to “impale” and “disembowel” wasn’t genuine because he wasn’t even sure if there was a real audience on the receiving end.
“That any of Mr. Anderson’s replies would register with the campaign’s mass-messaging system or reach any reader was uncertain,” the motion states.
He also wasn’t being seriously threatening, his lawyer argued, pointing to Supreme Court precedent for protected speech in the 1969 case of Watts v. United States.
In Watts, the high court ruled in favor of a man who, while protesting police brutality in a group setting, declared that he was against being drafted and had a physical looming.
“If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ,” the protester said.
The crowd laughed.
At the time, the Supreme Court found the comment was conditional, uttered during a political debate and innocuous to listeners. It was “crude” and “caustic” but it was merely oppositional political speech.
For Anderson, he contends that the impaling and disemboweling charge in his indictment omits relevant, contextual language, namely that he said in the text that the candidate “deserved to get impaled” or that “disembowelment would work too.”
This is more conversational than threatening, Anderson argues. To support that claim, his attorney pointed to a 2018 case out of Massachusetts, United States v. Ziobrowski. In that matter, the defendant went online and offered to pay “anyone” $500 to kill a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent. Ziobrowski was acquitted.
In Ziobrowski’s case, the court heard evidence about how the defendant allegedly spent months promoting violence against law enforcement agencies but in the end, as CBS reported, a jury found Ziobrowski wasn’t seriously threatening anyone and qualified his language, up against context, to be more jocular.
Anderson’s case, meanwhile, doesn’t even come close to that, his attorney argues, urging that “over-criminalization” of language should be avoided at all costs. There was no planning or alleged evidence of planning and his messages did not extend any “real possibility” of violence.
“Rather, the alleged messages indicate Mr. Anderson’s desire that the campaign stop texting him. A reasonable juror could not conclude that such conduct represents a true threat,” Graham wrote.
Court records reviewed by Law&Crime on Tuesday reveal Anderson also filed a motion on Jan. 31 to suppress statements he made to police during his Dec. 9 interview following the search of his home and cellphone.
Alone in his bedroom playing video games at the time, Anderson says he didn’t realize it was the FBI until agents had smashed in his door and began screaming at him about a warrant. They searched his apartment for weapons, too. He claims agents never read him his Miranda rights. Instead, he says, after they rooted through his phone at his house, he was taken to a police station and ignored when he asked for an attorney.
His lawyer says when FBI agents photographed his cellphone at his home in Dover and told him to unlock it, they couldn’t find the texts in question. It was only by searching through the deleted texts were they able to find the texts related to the charges.
His attorney argues the search and all that ensued was a violation of his Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights, too.
“Anderson was still shellshocked from the agents forcibly entering his house unexpectedly,” the motion says. “He did not understand or appreciate fully what was happening to him. Based on watching and reading news coverage concerning police encounters with civilians, he felt particularly afraid. As such, he was agreeable and malleable during his interview and just said ‘yes’ to everything to get the process over.”
Prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Rombeau, have objected to the motion to dismiss and court records show an evidentiary hearing on the motion is slated for March 8. Anderson’s trial is scheduled for April 16.
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