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Cops Detained a Guy for Joking at a Bar About Killing Trump

A 28-year-old history teacher says he was hanging at a Brooklyn sports bar Saturday and the conversation turned to politics. That's when shit got weird.

by Matt Taylor
Oct 26 2016, 7:45pm

​ Not the bar where the joke was apparently made. Photo via Flickr user dumbonyc

Your Facebook posts can spark arguments, your emails may be hacked, the government might monitor your phone calls and texts, and the recipients of your Tinder messages are definitely sharing them with friends and laughing about you. But conversations held within the bleary, beery confines of a bar are supposed to be sacred and secret, right? Right?

Turns out no. Ivanka Trump learned that the hard way (pun intended) when a decade-old alleged dive bar utterance about a hypothetical "mulatto cock" flew around the internet after BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti brought it up on Twitter. And one 28-year-old New Yorker learned a similar lesson over the weekend when a joke about killing Ivanka's angry dad apparently got him detained and interrogated by cops.

As Gothamist reports, Greg Chang, a local public school US history teacher, was posted up at Roebling Sporting Club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Saturday afternoon when the conversation turned to politics. "The offending joke, I believe, was, 'If Donald Trump becomes president, I would pursue an early retirement—life in federal prison," he told Gothamist. "Lucky for me I know the two parts of the country a President Trump would spend most of his time in: the Beltway and the City."

According to Chang, multiple officers showed up not long after, entered the bar, and asked for a word. (They had apparently been called by someone who overheard the conversation.) "I stepped outside, and literally the first question out of the sergeant's mouth is, 'Did you make any comments about Donald Trump today?" Chang said.

The teacher was not technically "arrested," but when cops ask you nicely to come down to the precinct for a longer interview—after seizing your driver's license—it's not insane to be afraid to say no. (VICE reached out to the bar for comment on the incident, which neither the NYPD nor Secret Service would comment on to Gothamist.) Chang said he was made to wait for three hours at the station before a Secret Service agent and detective began a more formal interrogation. Apparently convinced he might have said something more specific or serious, the duo laid into him for another hour or so before calling it quits and letting him go, Chang added.

Adding insult to injury, the NYPD somehow lost Chang's license, and he had to sign a waiver allowing law enforcement to contact his therapist and look through his medical records, he claimed.

Chang has not been charged with a crime, but can you get in real trouble for saying that you'd like to Kennedy your least favorite candidate? According to Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, the answer is hell no.

"It was absurd to detain this particular individual for making what clearly appears to be a joke," Calvert told me.

For something you say to be a "true threat"—basically, the legal standard for what counts as a legitimate one and not just loose talk—it has to be evaluated on three criteria: the content, the context, and the audience that heard it. "So you have to actually look at what was said, the context in which it was said—in this case in a bar as a joke—and the reaction to it, if people laughed and thought it was funny," Clay said. "The [true threat] test really also requires that the person [in this case Trump] be put in fear of imminent bodily harm" in order not to be protected under the First Amendment, he added.

The professor actually happened to be talking Donald Trump in class yesterday, specifically how the candidate made that weird allusion to "Second Amendment people" many took to be a jest about killing Hillary Clinton. That too, is protected speech, according to Clay.

"That's not a threat because he's hedging all his bets in the context of a political rally where people would understand he's engaged in rhetoric," he said.

So if there's lesson here (Chang was apparently told by one cop that he ought to be learning one), it's that your average beat cop may not be particularly well-versed on legal jurisprudence. And perhaps also that bars—that allegedly sacrosanct American institution—are not a safe space.

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