Hate speech, privacy and the personal lives of public officials

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Wednesday, December 8, 2021 about a resolution condemning Rep. Lauren Boebert's (R-Colo.) use of Islamaphobic rhetoric and removing her from her current committee assignments
Greg Nash
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the first Indian American woman elected to Congress, was the subject of hate speech on social media before a 49-year-old man was arrested outside her home in July 2022, allegedly threatening to kill her.

The recent arrest of an armed, threatening, potentially murderous person outside the home of Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) has underscored two areas of continuing and tragic governmental neglect: the vulnerability of public officials to violence, even assassination, and the incessant drumbeat of hate speech on social media aimed at vulnerable individuals and populations. 

Congresswoman Jayapal, the first Indian American woman elected to Congress, had been the subject of hate speech on social media for months, described as, among other things, a “street-sh—ing mother of a trans child.” Nor were these isolated posts; some of the same sites have been engaged in an escalating social media barrage of hate speech directed at the Hindu-American population. In a manner similar to contemporary expressions of antisemitism and other forms of hate speech, the tropes of hatred are not new; terms like “street-sh—er” have been employed to slander Hindus for years.   

What is new is the delivery of such hate speech over social media platforms that also make readily available, to anyone who cares to look, potential targets’ home addresses, places of worship, even their Social Security numbers. Indeed, as The Wall Street Journal points out, your “home address and other personal info are a search away,” and even with extraordinary effort to hide your search results, “[e]xpecting to have every digital trace removed isn’t realistic.”  

Congresswoman Jayapal’s experience is a case in point. According to the charging documents filed against 49-year-old Brett Forsell, in the days and months preceding the incident outside her home, Ms. Jayapal “had been doxed — having her home address and other private information maliciously posted online,” and was concerned that someone might show up at her home. On July 9, Mr. Forsell did, carrying a .40-caliber pistol and allegedly threatening to kill her and shouting at her to go back to India.   

Congresswoman Jayapal’s experience is hardly unique. On June 8, an armed man was arrested near the residence of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh; he had reportedly located the justice’s home address on social media. Three days earlier, a retired Wisconsin state court judge was murdered in his home.  

And two years ago, U.S. District Judge Esther Salas, the first Latina federal judge in the District of New Jersey, was targeted for assassination at her home by a disaffected lawyer who located her home address, place of worship, and other personal information on the internet. She was spared when her 20-year-old son Daniel and her husband Mark Anderl intercepted the assailant.  Her husband was seriously wounded and has made a painstaking recovery; they lost their precious son. 

Any one of these events should have prompted legislation to protect judges and other public officials; in the aftermath of the Justice Kavanaugh threat, Congress did pass and President Biden signed legislation extending around-the-clock protection to Supreme Court justices and their families — but not to Supreme Court employees or to other federal court judges. But that level of protection is not feasible on a nationwide scale, and the bill failed to address the common threads in the targeting of judges and other public officials: the amplification of hate messaging across social media platforms, and the ease of access to potential targets afforded by the monetization of private information as a cost of entry to the world of social media.   

The Daniel Anderl Judicial Security and Privacy Act has been pending for nearly two years now, stymied by the objection of Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that the bill fails to include members of Congress. By its terms, the bill would prohibit federal agencies and private businesses from posting certain personal information, such as home addresses, of federal judges and their immediate family members. It requires such information to be removed upon written request of the federal judge, prohibits data brokers from purchasing or selling such information, and establishes programs to protect such information at the state and local levels. 

Senator Paul’s objection seems pretextual; there is no reason his concern that members of Congress should be similarly protected cannot be enacted separately, and therefore no reason the protection of federal judges provided by the Anderl Act shouldn’t be enacted immediately.  Certainly, the example of Congresswoman Jayapal underscores the need for similar protections for members of Congress.    

At the end of the day, however, the issues raised are fundamental to the structure of the internet itself. Shouldn’t any vulnerable person — a member of a group targeted by hate speech, a victim of domestic violence, a citizen concerned about exposing her private information — be afforded an easy avenue to protect that information? And shouldn’t the social media platforms be monitored independently and called to account for their tolerance of hate speech?    

In the meantime, the escalating threats to the lives of public officials, from federal judges and members of Congress to local election officials, require urgent action to address the common threads underlying those threats: easy access to private information on platforms that do little to discourage the proliferation of hate messaging that leads to real world targeting.    

John Farmer Jr. is director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. He is a former assistant U.S. attorney, counsel to the governor of New Jersey, New Jersey attorney general, senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission, dean of Rutgers Law School, and executive vice president and general counsel of Rutgers University.

Tags Esther Salas Federal judges Hate speech members of congress Rand Paul Social media Threats

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