Threatening to post a sex tape on Facebook doesn’t constitute criminality or a “true threat”, the Supreme Court of Georgia ruled on Monday, given that the defendant didn’t express an “intent to commit an act of unlawful violence.”
The case concerns Lister W. Harrell, a Georgia man who’s been serving a 6-year prison sentence after having been found guilty of animal cruelty and intimidating court officers in 2014.
Harrell, a landlord, first got into trouble with the courts in 2013, when he cut off a tenant’s electricity after the tenant refused to pay rent or vacate the property.
Cutting off utilities is a citable offense punishable by a maximum $500 fine, according to Harrell’s lawyer, Tom Jarriel.
After Harrell failed to appear for a court hearing on the charge, a bench warrant was issued for his arrest.
Harrell posted a threat on Facebook, telling Deputy Chief Clerk Tammy Graham that unless the warrant were lifted, he’d post a link to a (non-existent) video showing her having sex with him and two other men.
He also posted a claim that Graham had lied about Harrell having been served notice of a hearing about the accusation that he’d violated his duties as a landlord.
In another post, he posted the personal mobile phone number of Dodge County Court Clerk Rhett Walker, urging readers to call the court clerk to tell him to leave Harrell alone while he was “on the run,” so that he could enjoy his “chicken-foot eating victory.”
Harrell also called Walker, telling him that if he didn’t lift the warrant by a given date, Harrell would “turn [Walker’s] world upside down,” and that “you know what will happen on Facebook.”
The animal cruelty charge stemmed from a separate incident, in which Harrell put a dead cat in the mailbox of his ex-girlfriend and the mother of two of his children, Shirley Webb.
He also called Webb and implied that he’d upload pornographic videos of her to an online site.
A jury found Harrell guilty of misdemeanor cruelty to animals and two counts of intimidating a court officer in June 2014, and he was sentenced to six years in prison followed by six years on probation.
In Monday’s decision, the court agreed with Harrell’s assertion that he should have been given separate trials for the animal cruelty and intimidation charges, given that the two were unconnected.
It also ruled that nothing in Harrell’s statements to Graham or Walker threatened an “unlawful act of violence.”
The court’s unanimous decision did point out that First Amendment protection of speech doesn’t include intimidation.
For example, in the 2002 case of Virginia v. Black, the Virginia court declared that it’s illegal to burn a cross if it can be proven that the act was intended to intimidate.
Nonetheless, given that there was no sex tape, neither Harrell’s post about Graham nor the threatening call to Walker threatened actual violence, though both may have been “caustic and unpleasant.”
From the court’s ruling:
While Harrell's speech might well be described as caustic and unpleasant it did not convey 'a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence.'