Photo via Flickr user neeel
As every middle schooler knows, the internet is a repository of strange shit. A few casual keystrokes can take you to Goatse, Lemon Party, Cake Farts, and a dozen other weird porn memes. A few more clicks and you can find photos of mass graves, diseased genitals, rotting animal corpses teeming with maggots, open wounds festering and dripping with pus. Most hardened internet denizens laugh (or turn away in disgust) and move on when confronted with the web’s dark corners, but occasionally, people end up curling up inside them and making a home.
That’s one way to describe what happened to Gilberto Valle, the tabloid-famous “Cannibal Cop” who just had his conviction for plotting to kidnap, kill, and eat a bunch of women overturned by a judge who ruled that all of the online discussions he had with others about murder and vore fantasies were just that: fantasies.
“Once the lies and the fantastical elements are stripped away, what is left are deeply disturbing misogynistic chats and emails written by an individual obsessed with imagining women he knows suffering horrific sex-related pain, terror and degradation,” Judge Paul Gardephe wrote in an opinion released Monday night that sided with the defense. “Despite the highly disturbing nature of Valle’s deviant and depraved sexual interests, his chats and emails about these interests are not sufficient—standing alone—to make out the elements of conspiracy to commit kidnapping.”
Valle is definitely disturbed. The former New York City cop was into an extreme site called DarkFetishNet that has section headings like “Morgue/Post-Mortem” and “Executions”; images found on his hard drive included a photo of a woman being roasted on a spit. He reportedly told an FBI agent that his exotic desires were “bleeding into his personal life”—he had stopped having sex with his wife and logged into DarkFetishNet from his phone when he was on duty. He even used his access to an NYPD database to gather information about the women he was thinking about killing and eating, a misdemeanor charge that Gardephe didn’t overturn. (That conviction seems reason enough for Valle not to get his job back.)
Take away all those juicy details and what remains of the Cannibal Cop trial is a set of philosophical questions: When do thoughts begin to influence reality? If Valle’s (now former) wife hadn’t found those conversations on his computer and reported him, would he have harmed anyone? At what point do illicit desires congeal into criminal plans? What interest does society have in policing its most extreme forms of speech?
In recent years, as the internet has made it possible for people to share their innermost and vilest thoughts with likeminded weirdos (or the entire world), the courts have had to deal with cases that've tested the limits of free speech. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled, in United States v. Stevens, that a California law meant to ban crush fetish pornos showing people squishing animals was too broad to be constitutional—animal cruelty is illegal, but depictions of animal cruelty are protected under the First Amendment. (Legislators later rewrote the law to be narrower.) And in a 1997 case with some striking similarities to Valle’s, United States v. Baker, a University of Michigan student who wrote a snuff story starring a classmate and put it up on a Usenet newsgroup had his conviction of making threats to kidnap and kill someone overturned by appeals court. “The communication which so much alarmed the University of Michigan officials was only a rather savage and tasteless piece of fiction,” Judge Avern Cohn wrote. “Why the government became involved in the matter is not really explained in the record.”
Last month the Supreme Court announced that it would hear arguments in Elonis v. United States, yet another instance of online communication gone horribly wrong. The figure at the center of the case, Anthony Elonis, is a Pennsylvania man who after losing his job and getting divorced began to post a bunch of unhinged Facebook statuses, some of them in the style of rap lyrics, about killing his wife and other people. He was convicted of making threats and sentenced to three years in prison in 2010, even though he claims that he never planned to hurt anyone.
The argument in Elonis is over whether the intent of his online ramblings mattered: Under some interpretations of the true threat doctrine, you can be convicted of a crime if a “reasonable person” would be threatened by your communications. But according to many First Amendment absolutists, the only question should be if your remarks were meant as a threat. It sounds like an abstract distinction, but in a world where teens can be arrested for using Twitter to talk about blowing up planes, it’s an important one.
Though Valle and Elonis faced different charges, the issues in the two cases are broadly similar: If someone isn’t going to act out the fantasies he talks about online—and there’s no physical evidence the Cannibal Cop was going to turn into an actual cannibal—then what we’re talking about is sending someone to prison for objectionable speech.
“The decision [to overturn Vale’s conviction] reaffirms that the First Amendment protects what many people would consider to be the most vile and repulsive thoughts and fantasies,” said Clay Calvert, a law professor at the University of Florida, in an email.
When I called Alexa Aimes, a porn star who has made some hardcore bondage videos, to discuss the case, she was more blunt. “Everybody's entitled to their own sexual fantasies,” she told me. “People like to look at things they don't understand. That's why it's called a fantasy.”
Valle’s fantasies don’t seem particularly healthy, and he may wish he could purge them from his head. But sending him to prison for talking about them online—at a time when, increasingly, people’s darkest thoughts find their way to forums, chat rooms, and social media—would have been a step toward persecuting extreme fetishists and other online kooks solely for their beliefs. (Hopefully the judge's decision will help Valle's role-play buddies, who face similar charges.)
“The case itself is confined to its unique facts and here the judge found that Valle lacked the requisite specific intent to commit kidnapping,” Calvert said. “But the latent theme is a recognition by the judge that people engage in rhetoric on the internet that is not to be taken seriously.”
And when we’re taking internet rhetoric seriously, we’re doing something wrong.
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