A New Jersey police department has filed cyber harassment charges against five people over a picture of an officer posted on Twitter. The office was pictured at a protest. The Twitter user was asking if anyone could identify him. Subsequently, four people retweeted the message. The police department is alleging that this amounts to harassment.
Although the case itself involved only a few players, the outcome could have a far-reaching impact on protest movements and police encounters.
The Tweet and Retweets
On June 26th, Twitter user Kevin Alfaro uploaded the now-deleted post in question. The post included a picture of a masked police officer and a caption that read “If anyone knows who this bitch is throw his info under this tweet.”
According to Alfaro, a group of pro-Christopher Columbus protesters had confronted a group of Black Lives Matter protesters in Nutley, New Jersey. There was a tense standoff between the two groups with police forming a barricade in the middle.
The police department later identified the officer in the photo as Peter Sandomenico. He was apparently being “very friendly” with the anti-BLM protesters. Most of the officers at the scene had also covered their badge numbers. This practice has become commonplace at protests across the country as officers hope to avoid being identifiable and accountable.
Sandomenico also reportedly wore a “Thin Blue Line” flag on his mask. This flag is supposed to express solidarity with police officers, but has come to be imbued with racist sentiments. White supremacists have often flown the flag, including at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Either during, or shortly following the protest, Alfaro posted the tweet. It did not receive much attention, with only four people retweeting it. And at the time the police charged the five people, no one had successfully identified Sandomenico.
Facing Felony Charges
One of the retweeters, activist Georgana Sziszak, first announced the charges via a GoFundMe campaign requesting money for a lawyer. She revealed that the original poster and the four retweeters had been charged with fourth-degree felony cyber harassment. If found guilty, they could be facing up to 18 months in prison. The summons completely blindsided her, seeing as she wasn’t even present at the protest — she only clicked the retweet button.
Sziszak’s attorney, Alan Peyrouton, said of the charge, “I’ve never seen anything like it… I don’t see how that rises to the level of a crime.”
Protection of an Officer or a Perversion of the Law
The police department filed the complaint on the grounds that the officer felt unsafe. In their statement, the department said that the tweet caused the officer to “fear that harm will come to himself, family, and property.”
However, at the time of the complaint, the officer hadn’t even been identified, and thanks to the mask and lack of badge number, was almost entirely unidentifiable. Further, the post asked only for information, not action.
Sziszak wrote of her surprise when receiving the summons:
“I did not reply, did not say anything against this cop, and had zero clue to who he was. I simply retweeted because I feel that just as with anyone we should hold our officers accountable. The purpose of this tweet was to find out the officers information, to hold him accountable.”
Requesting identification of an officer who is illegally covering a badge number is well within anyone’s legal rights. Furthermore, the First Amendment protects the right to photograph or record on-duty officers.
As for the definition of online harassment, a New Jersey law bans it only in a handful of ways. If cyber harassment directly threatens someone’s physical safety, their property or involved sending them lewd material, it is illegal. Charges are also usually only brought when the harassment is persistent, as in a case of stalking or cyberbullying.
While this case is unlikely to go far, given its shaky legal grounds, its outcome is critical. If officers are able to take punitive action against those who want only to identify them, it could lead to even more issues of accountability. Also, the policing of social media could lead to huge issues for justice movements, which largely take place on social media platforms.