Threat against DA investigated
By LESLIE WILBER - VICTORIA ADVOCATE
June 27, 2008 at 1:27 a.m.
State investigators are trying to trace an online threat made against Victoria County District Attorney Stephen Tyler.
To do that, the Texas Department of Public Safety has subpoenaed the Victoria Advocate’s computer records involving the specific post, which was made in May on the newspaper’s Web site.
The order asks for information about a potentially threatening submission to the “Seen on the Scene” portion of the Web site.
The post is being investigated as a terroristic threat, according to the subpoena.
Sgt. Jay Druesedow of the Department of Public Safety wouldn’t comment Thursday on the ongoing investigation.
“It’s an individual investigation about the single upload,” Druesedow said.
The suspected threat was posted May 29, according to the subpoena. It showed a picture of District Attorney Stephen Tyler pulling into the office parking lot in his Mustang. The post included a link to a YouTube video for a song about lighting a Mustang on fire and the address for the district attorney’s office.
“I think that could be construed as intimidating,” Tyler said. “You don’t list people’s property or where it can be burned.”
Many posts on the newspaper’s Web site are outlandish, Tyler said, adding that he usually doesn’t feel threatened by them.
“No argument is too debase to make,” he said of the online discussion forum. “There’s nothing too low.”
Users frequently criticize Tyler and other officials. Posters sometimes write unpleasant comments, but usually they adhere to the site’s policies promoting a civil discourse, said Dan Easton, vice president and assistant general manager at the Advocate.
“Generally, our community is pretty good about flagging posts,” Easton said.
Advocate staff doesn’t review posts before they’re written. It’s not what users expect and heavy traffic on the site would make it impossible anyway, Easton said.
Advocate Web site moderators removed the post about Tyler’s car soon after a user flagged it as questionable, Easton said.
The newspaper’s ethics board decided to comply with the subpoena because it was a specific request regarding a possible criminal act, Editor Chris Cobler said. In addition, the Advocate’s online policy states users are responsible for their posts, he said.
The paper recently fought two grand jury subpoenas asking for a reporter to testify before a grand jury. The distinction is those subpoenas were directed at a journalist for information that was readily available from other sources, including the published articles on the subject, Cobler said.
Investigators should be careful not to chill free speech when investigating threat claims, said Lisa Graybill, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.
“It isn’t law enforcement’s job to police public discourse,” Graybill said. “Hopefully, they investigate because there’s a real threat.”
People can write or say almost anything, unless it’s obscene or it poses an immediate threat of violence, Graybill said. It’s hard to judge what’s an immediate threat, she said, but there needs to be a real risk of violence.
The only way to know for sure is for a court to decide, she said.
People often direct nasty – or even violent – comments toward public officials, but have no way to back them up, Graybill said.
“You don’t want law enforcement chasing down every blogger who says, in effect, ‘Get him out of here,’ ” she said.
Leslie Wilber is a reporter for the Victoria Advocate. Contact her at 361-580-6521 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment on this story at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com