Virginia Appeals Court Affirms Conviction for Posting Threatening Rap Lyrics on MySpace — Holcomb v. Virginia

[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]

Holcomb v. Virginia, 0546-10-1 (Va. Ct. App. June 7, 2011)

Defendant was involved in a romantic relationship with the victim and fathered their child. The Defendant and the victim had a contentious custody dispute. Defendant posted several blog entries to his MySpace page. The title to one entry was “Unfinished Biznezz God, I give you the ‘woodroll’ family … Tell them to ‘F the F OFF’ and “GET OFF ME” with the following content:

Poof? Make ya daughter disappear like 2pac!

He knew now what he do like 2 cops

With no vest, off’d with 2 shots

Thru the chest from 2 blocks

….

Custody battles, restraining orders

Bitch made me go mad I just had to stab her

Blind now I see her true colors

On the front cover of The World’s Most Murdered Mothers

By Americas Most Wanted Fathers

….

Ain’t nobody playing bitch, slit your neck into a fountain drink

This is your pre-accident announcing

Fuck your fliers, I already put the word out for the crowd 2 see

No one hearing your screams from the knife cut sounds

The Defendant testified that he did not direct the entries to the victim. In fact, the victim did not read the entries until a member of her family alerted her to the entries and she accessed the defendant’s MySpace page with her mother’s computer (she did not have a computer of her own). Based on the references to “Woodroll,” her maiden name, and references in the entries to specific incidents of their custody battles, the victim testified that she had a reasonable fear of harm.

Were the threats directed to the victim?: The first question was whether the threats were directed to the victim. It turns out that this does not matter. The court holds that even though the statute requires a threat to be “communicated,” this does not mean that the threat has to be specifically communicated to the victim–it can be generally disseminated:

it is sufficient [defendant] made numerous references to his history with Rollman that allowed her to identify herself as the subject of violent fantasies once she [viewed] the profile . . . [f]urther, [defendant] knew that [the victim] had access to his MySpace page and had viewed it in the past.

Were the lyrics ‘true threats’?: Defendant argued that he had used MySpace as a medium for posting other music and lyrics, and that he had an “established history of involvement” with ‘Juggalo-style‘ music. The court rejects these arguments, focusing on prior incidents between the victim and the defendant, the specificity of the posts, and the “graphic and violent” imagery in the posts. The court also finds that the victim’s reaction was reasonable–she moved out of her house and back in with her parents in order to take advantage of the security system that her parents had in place.

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It’s hard to say whether this has risen to the level of a trend, but courts seem to find that posting a threat on the internet that references another person can fall under statutes prohibiting threatening communications (even where the threat is not directed to the person in question). The Jeffries case was one I blogged about where the court similarly relied on the specific references in the defendant’s post to find that the threat constituted a ‘true threat.’ (“Court Finds That Threatening Video Posted to YouTube and Facebook Can Constitute a “True Threat.”) That case also involved a disgruntled participant in the family court system as a defendant, although the threats in question where ostensibly directed to a family court commissioner.

There are obvious First Amendment issues lurking in the background of these cases, and courts should be worried about developing a body of precedent that prevents people from venting about their trials and tribulations in life. Although the court does not give much credence to them, these issues were at the forefront in this case since the defendant previously posted lyrics to his site and had a credible argument that these particular lyrics were just a manifestation of his ongoing frustrations in life. Interestingly, the courts don’t seem to take the contexts of the postings into account much in these cases. Is a post to a MySpace page more likely to fall into the “rant” category and not meant to be taken seriously? Several courts have said as much in the defamation context (see DiMeo v Max, Finkel v Dauber, and more recently, Sandals Resorts v. Google), but courts have not embraced this view when it comes to threats online.

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