BOSTON (AP) — A man who tweeted that he would give $500 to anyone who would kill a federal immigration officer was acquitted Friday in a case that centered on whether a threatening social media post is protected speech.
A federal jury at U.S. District Court in Boston cleared Brandon Ziobrowski, 35, of New York City. He had faced up to five years in prison and a fine of as much as $250,000 if convicted.
Ziobrowski had been charged with using interstate and foreign commerce to transmit a threat. Jurors got the case Friday afternoon after a week of testimony.
Ziobrowski said after the verdict that he was relieved the ordeal was over.
"It seemed like the right verdict," he said briefly as he walked out of court with his family and lawyer late Friday. "It's been a horrible year. I'm glad its over."
His lawyer, Derege Demissie, said the case "should never have gone this far."
"The government turned a tweet that was made in jest — a hyperbolic political statement — into a federal case," he said.
U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling, whose office prosecuted the case, said his staff will "never hesitate" to prosecute threats against law enforcement officers.
"We respect the jury's verdict," he said in a statement. "But in this case the defendant posted a tweet that, on its face, offered $500 to anyone who killed a federal agent."
Ziobrowski, who lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the time, made threats on social media against Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and other law enforcement last year, authorities said.
In one instance, Ziobrowski tweeted to his roughly 400 Twitter followers: "I am broke but will scrounge and literally give $500 to anyone who kills an ice agent. @me seriously who else can pledge get in on this let's make this work."
Demissie had argued that his client's comments were constitutionally protected political speech that have been "blown out of proportion" by prosecutors.
"This is a guy who tweets about all kinds of things and says outrageous things," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Siegmann countered that Ziobrowski's tweet crossed the line into a "true threat" not protected by the First Amendment.
"The defendants words were clear and unambiguous," she said. "It put the lives of law enforcement at risk. That is not protected speech. That is a solicitation to commit murder."
Siegmann also argued that there was nothing in Ziobrowski's tweet suggesting he was joking or being sarcastic, as his lawyer maintained.
At the time Ziobrowski posted the tweet, Homeland Security officials also believed a credible threat existed, since the names of ICE agents had been recently released publicly, Siegmann added.
Judge Denise Casper told jurors the central question before them was whether Ziobrowski intended to communicate a "true threat" or at least knew that it could be interpreted by others that way.
But she also reminded them that a true threat does not include "caustic"or "sharp" political attacks, which are protected speech.
Besides the tweet from July 2018, Ziobrowski also responded to a tweet about U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers putting their "lives on the line" to make arrests by saying, "Thank you ICE for putting your lives on the line and hopefully dying I guess so there's less of you?" according to court documents.
He also tweeted about his desire to kill Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain, who has since died, and said guns "should only be legal for shooting the police like the second amendment intended."
Twitter suspended his account after it was alerted to the threat about the ICE agents.
Federal officials said at the time of Ziobrowski's arrest that his comments were part of a broader rise in threats against law enforcement amid the nation's increasingly bitter divide over immigration and other political issues.
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