Federal prosecutors will investigate certain threats and harassment that public officials in Twin Falls have received amid an online furor about the sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl there.
But the U.S. Attorney’s Office is not threatening to arrest people over protected free speech, U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson said Tuesday.
Her emailed statement was a response to questions raised by a press release Friday, in which Olson noted “the spread of false information or inflammatory or threatening statements about the perpetrators or the crime itself reduces public safety and may violate federal law.”
Members of the public and at least one prominent legal expert had questioned Olson’s wording, and whether her statement threatened prosecutions over normally protected expressions of free speech.
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“There is no First Amendment exception for ‘inflammatory’ statements; and even false statements about matters of public concern, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held, are an inevitable part of free debate,” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh wrote in an op-ed originally published by the Washington Post.
Last week, Olson told the Statesman her office was prepared to take action against anyone who threatens or harasses people or obstructs police or prosecutors in their work on the case.
Tuesday, she drew a line between threats and harassment that “may violate federal law and will be investigated,” and “intentionally false and inflammatory rumors” that while causing harm to the community, are protected.
“The statement was not intended to and does not threaten to arrest or prosecute anyone for First Amendment protected speech,” Olson said.
The assault case involves three other boys, two of whom have been charged; only one child touched the girl, police and prosecutors said. The case is sealed, a typical move in juvenile cases. But over the weekend of June 18, rumors swirled online that three Syrian refugee children had gang-raped the girl at knifepoint, and that their parents had celebrated the violence.
Authorities say none of those rumors are true. Though they’re not sure if the boys — from Iraq and Sudan — are refugees or not, they weren’t settled in Twin Falls through an Idaho refugee program.
Below, read Olson’s two statements:
Friday, June 24: The United States Attorney’s Office extends its support to the five-year-old victim of assault, and her family, at the Fawnbrook Apartments in Twin Falls. The United States Attorney’s Office further encourages community members in Twin Falls and throughout Idaho to remain calm and supportive, to pay close attention to the facts that have been released by law enforcement and the prosecuting attorney, and to avoid spreading false rumors and inaccuracies.
“Grant Loebs is an experienced prosecutor, and Chief Craig Kingsbury is an experienced law enforcement officer. They are moving fairly and thoughtfully in this case,” said Wendy J. Olson, U.S. Attorney for Idaho. “As Mr. Loebs and Chief Kingsbury informed the public, the subjects in this case are juveniles, ages 14, 10 and 7. The criminal justice system, whether at the state or federal level, requires that juveniles be afforded a specific process with significant restrictions on the information that can be released. The fact that the subjects are juveniles in no way lessens the harm to or impact on the victim and her family. The spread of false information or inflammatory or threatening statements about the perpetrators or the crime itself reduces public safety and may violate federal law. We have seen time and again that the spread of falsehoods about refugees divides our communities. I urge all citizens and residents to allow Mr. Loebs and Chief Kingsbury and their teams to do their jobs.”
Tuesday, June 28: U.S. Attorney Wendy J. Olson issues the following statement:
“Many in the press, public and online bloggers are misinterpreting the statement I issued on Friday, June 24, 2016, in support of the five-year-old victim of an assault in Twin Falls, Idaho, and in support of the law enforcement authorities there who are prosecuting the case. The statement was not intended to and does not threaten to arrest or prosecute anyone for First Amendment protected speech.
I issued the statement because public officials in Twin Falls have received threats. Certain threatening or harassing communications may violate federal law and will be investigated. I am also concerned that intentionally false and inflammatory rumors are creating an unsafe environment in Twin Falls. In this case, it appears that the threats have resulted from false and inflammatory information spread about this crime, often times by those from outside of the community. I encourage all to be patient while the juvenile justice system works. I also encourage all to support this victim and her family.”