Wednesday, 26 November 2003
Man charged in "spam rage" case
This seems to be a first. Charles Booher of Sunnyvale, California has been arrested and charged with 11 counts for threats he made to a company he blamed for sending him spam and causing web popup ads on his computer. Wired News reports ("Man Arrested Over 'Spam Rage'"):
Booher threatened to send a "package full of Anthrax spores" to the company, to "disable" an employee with a bullet and torture him with a power drill and ice pick; and to hunt down and castrate the employees unless they removed him from their e-mail list, prosecutors said.
This case presents a good opportunity to mention a recurring a point about defining classes of speech for legal purposes. I have yet to see a case where this was not problematic, but it is never more so than when the communication of words alone constitutes a crime. Mr. Booher's words (as reported in Wired) clearly threatened physical violence, his intent to make a threat seems clear, and he communicated the threat to the threatened person — satisfying the basic requirements of most threat statutes. Do prosecutors have a slam dunk case? Maybe. But the inquiry only starts there.
It is what Wired failed to report that I find interesting. The article in Saturday's San Jose Mercury News makes Booher look much more sympathetic. (Article: "Spam sends local man into rage") There, we learn that Booher "is a three-time survivor of testicular cancer" and that the overwhelming flood of spam that triggered his emotional outburst was hawking — you guessed it — penile enlargement products. Suddenly, his response is understandable.
Before you send me angry email, note that I do not condone what Booher did. My point here is that it is irresponsible to condemn someone based on a small amount of information. When the condemnation implicates the most basic liberties of any free society, we have to be especially careful. Some of you may remember Jake Baker, the University of Michigan student who wrote a revolting rape/torture/murder fantasy story about a classmate and posted it on alt.sex.stories. Baker was charged with making threats, notwithstanding that he had unambiguously stated that the story was fiction. The subsequent uproar ended with his exoneration of all charges of making threats — a result demanded by the First Amendment. For those unfamiliar with the case, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) maintains an archive of relevant documents. (If you have a strong stomach, the story is still available online. However, you have been warned: This is pretty sick stuff.)