On Friday, a federal jury in Boston sided with the 35-year-old, acquitting him on the charge of using interstate and foreign commerce to transmit a threat to injure another person. Threats are not considered protected speech under the First Amendment, but Ziobrowski’s legal team successfully argued that his July 2, 2018, tweet didn’t cross that line. In court filings, they claimed that his rhetoric wasn’t that different from President Trump’s.
If convicted, Ziobrowski would have faced up to five years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Ziobrowski, who went by @Vine_II on Twitter, was 33 and living in Cambridge, Mass., when his tweet was flagged by the feds. He only had roughly 400 followers on the platform, and the tweet drew a scant two likes. But it caught the eye of the Department of Homeland Security’s Current and Emerging Threats Center in Washington, which found the post “while conducting searches of the Internet for any domestic and international terrorism threats,” according to the indictment.
The center sent out a warning to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies across the country, issuing a report titled “Social media user solicits contract murder of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement personnel.” At the request of Boston’s FBI field office, Twitter deleted the message and suspended Ziobrowski’s account.
Ziobrowski was criminally charged in August. Federal prosecutors contended his tweet was “designed to encourage violence and the murder of law enforcement agents,” and alleged in their indictment it was part of a pattern of menacing behavior. His posts had “become more violent and threatening” over time, they wrote, noting he had expressed a desire to slit Sen. John McCain’s throat and written guns “should only be legal for the shooting the police like the second amendment intended.”
But Ziobrowski’s lawyer, Derege Demissie, argued in court filings that his body of tweets actually proved he had “a history of using vitriol and sarcasm to express his outrage and disgust over what he perceives as government overreach.” He had previously made over-the-top statements like “Hey I haven’t tweeted this in a while but we should still kill the rich and redistribute their wealth” and “I’m not pro death but I literally don’t care about cops,” also tweeting “kill yourself” at President Trump.
Viewed in context, Ziobrowski’s legal team argued, it was clear his comment about ICE officers wasn’t an invitation to commit murder. And, crucially, it lacked the level of specific detail — the who, what, where, and when — that would have been found in a credible threat. In other words, it was a joke.
“This is a guy who tweets about all kinds of things and says outrageous things,” Demissie said in court last week, according to the Associated Press.
Also, Demissie argued in court filings, these deliberately exaggerated statements had been made “in a political environment where the president of the United States and his supporters repeatedly use similar language to make a political point.” His May motion to dismiss the case included a long list of examples, including a 2016 rally where President Trump pointed out a protester and told the crowd, “I’d like to punch him in the face, I tell ya.”
During the trial last week, prosecutors countered that Ziobrowski “put the lives of law enforcement at risk,” and said that nothing about his tweet indicated he was being sarcastic, according to the AP. Weeks before the post, Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Siegmann noted, a list containing the names and photographs of thousands of ICE employees had been published on WikiLeaks, which led Homeland Security officials to believe there was a credible threat. Ziobrowski, however, did not include the list in his tweet and made no reference to it. After the acquittal, U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling said in a statement that his office, which was responsible for bringing charges against Ziobrowski, “will never hesitate to prosecute apparent threats against law enforcement officers.”
But Demissie told the AP a comment made in jest had been blown out of proportion and the case “should never have gone this far.”
“It seemed like the right verdict,” Ziobrowski said as he left court late Friday. “It’s been a horrible year. I’m glad it’s over.”