Martin Shkreli engaged in protected speech

Martin Shkreli, the CEO that so-called news organizations inappropriately refer to by the nickname “pharma bro”, recently had his bail revoked:

Shkreli, 34, was hauled off to the Brooklyn Metropolitan Correctional Center on Wednesday night after a judge revoked his bail over a Facebook posting that offered $5,000 to any follower who would grab a hair off Hillary Clinton’s head during her book tour.

The former pharmaceutical executive β€” who first came to national attention for hiking the price of a life-saving drug β€” insisted the posting was a joke. The judge, however, wasn’t laughing.

(To be clear, I don’t actually care that he has been nicknamed “pharma bro”. I just think it’s dumb that allegedly professional news organizations have taken to actually using that moniker.)

Here’s Shkreli’s Facebook post:

Shkreli

This is what is immediately clear about that post. 1) It has absurd premises. 2) His offer is absurd. 3) It was posted to his Facebook page, which is run for the sake of being absurd and/or trolling.

None of those things were taken into account by Judge Kiyo Matsumoto. Furthermore, she failed to take into account any of Brandenburg. As a result, she made this incorrect and irresponsible statement:

“This is not protected by the First Amendment,” U.S. District Judge Kiyo Matsumoto said before revoking the $5 million bond. “There’s a risk that somebody may take him up on it.”

Matsumoto had wide latitude to revoke Shkreli’s bail, so it’s perplexing why she would so intentionally spread misinformation. She ought to be embarrassed that she didn’t even pretend she was applying any basic First Amendment test here. This is a Maeghan Maloney-level understanding of free speech rights.

Shkreli’s bail status notwithstanding, if someone wants to show that his Facebook ‘offer’ was not protected speech, they need to apply the three-pronged Brandenburg test – something the judge didn’t do. Did his speech demonstrate 1) intent, 2) imminence, and 3) likelihood of lawless action? I don’t think it showed a single one.

Let’s start with intent. (This can include instances where a person should have reasonably expected his speech would result in lawless action.) Look at the post and how absurd it is at every turn. He said the Clinton Foundation has murdered people. He said he potentially already has Clinton’s DNA. He offered a tiny sum for a huge risk. It’s wildly clear that he isn’t even remotely serious. Even when he responded to someone where he said “I’m serious”, it’s impossible to believe him. He’s a 4chan poster without the anonymity. No reasonable person could believe that this was a real offer.

Next is imminence. How could this possibly result in imminent lawless action? Someone reading that post would have to 1) be in the same area as Clinton, 2) know she was in the same area, 3) know where to find her in the very near future, and 4) have a way to get close to her. It is 100% impossible that Clinton could have been in imminent danger. Even if a person was in the same city as Clinton and knew it, and even if she was in public at the very moment Shkreli made his Facebook post, that person would still have to have a way to get to her and to get access to her. And if they were across town and had to get in their car to drive to a convention center where they had to buy a ticket to get in? You’ve just lost your imminence.

And finally, likelihood. Give me a break. For it to be likely that someone would take him up on this offer, all of the following would have to be true of someone who read his post:

    They would have to be unaware that Shkreli is a dedicated troll.
    They would have to believe he was serious.
    They would have to be motivated by $5,000 per hair that had a follicle.
    They would have to think that more than one follicle was necessary for some reason, and that’s why Shkreli was incentivizing the capture of multiple strands.
    They would have to believe that The Clinton Foundation murdered one or more people.
    They would have to believe that Shkreli had Clinton’s DNA already.
    They would have to be willing to risk their freedom at the least and their life at the most.
    They would have to know where Clinton was and when she could be found in public.
    They would have to be near that location.
    They would have to be able to get near Clinton’s head.

There are two things in that list that are likely. One, people actually do think the Clintons have murdered people, so it’s not a stretch to say there are probably people who think their foundation has been complicit in killing. Two, I’m sure Clinton’s tour schedule has been published somewhere. But other than that? You could argue that it’d be possible to yank a hair from her head during some fan photograph session, but I don’t imagine that would go unnoticed by her Secret Service detail.

Martin Shkreli’s Facebook post fails every single part of the Brandenburg test. Every. Single. Part. It’s not even a close call that what he said was entirely protected speech – at least outside a bail hearing. And, once again, that’s what makes this so perplexing. Judge Matsumoto didn’t need to make up an incoherent First Amendment claim in order to justify revoking bail. She could have just done it. She ought to be embarrassed at her actions on the bench.

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