In what may have been the first case of its kind, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development yesterday charged Ryan Wilson with civil-rights violations for threatening a housing activist on his Web site, the AP reported. But as Wired News' Lakshmi Chaudhry wrote in a far more comprehensive story, it took victim Bonnie Jouhari nearly two years to get the government to press charges - suggesting that the Department of Justice still isn't sure how to handle Net threats.
According to the AP, Jouhari chaired the Hate Crimes Task Force in Berks County, Penn. Part of her job, the story said, was to help people file discrimination complaints under the housing act. That's why Wilson and his white-supremacist group, ALPHA HQ, targeted her. Wilson posted Jouhari's picture on his Web site, along with an animated picture of her office exploding and a caption reading, ""Traitors like this should beware, for in our day, they will be hung from the neck from the nearest tree or lamppost." Following the posting, Jouhari was harassed so severely that she fled with her daughter to Seattle. Continued harassment there has caused her to move yet again within the city.
Chaudhry reported that while the Penn. Attorney General's office obtained an injunction that forced Wilson to take down his Web site, it wasn't able to press criminal charges for the online death threat. Only the Justice Department can do that. It didn't, though, which is why HUD finally pressed civil charges.
While the DoJ has successfully prosecuted at least two cases involving online hate in the past year, Chaudhry reported, both cases involved e-mailed death threats. As Jouhari's case proves, the Web can be an even more potent weapon.
Chaudhry quoted law professor Brian Levin: "A threat issued over the Internet may be worse than e-mail because it emboldens others to act." He suggested that online threats deserve even harsher penalties than other threats. Apparently the DoJ didn't see it that way.