A man who posted a cartoon of a burning mosque on the Facebook page of New England’s largest Muslim cultural center faces federal charges for making an illegal threat that free speech attorneys say isn’t protected by the First Amendment.
Patrick Keogan of Wilmington was held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing tomorrow. He is charged with making online threats and being a convicted felon in possession of ammunition.
Authorities say Keogan, 44, posted an image of a mosque in flames on the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center’s Facebook page with the words “Burn your local mosque” surrounding it. He commented on the post, saying “Hello scumbags” with a smiley face.
“A reasonable recipient of that post could certainly have interpreted it as a threat,” said Tom Lesser, an attorney who has handled numerous First Amendment cases. “I wouldn’t want to be the defendant here — this looks like an uphill climb to me.”
The post was made in the aftermath of the Nov. 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris, and that prompted officials at the cultural center to alert the FBI, according to authorities.
“We probably report one message that is on the borderline of being hateful probably once every few months,” said Yusufi Vali, the cultural center’s executive director.
“I want to be clear: They are not usually from Boston. They are usually from other parts of the country or world.”
Vali said authorities have told the mosque to report messages if they are an “outright threat.” He said yesterday someone “called us all pedophiles,” but he didn’t call it in to the FBI because “it really wasn’t an outright threat.”
This is only the second time an arrest has been made after mosque leadership reported a perceived threat to the FBI, Vali said. The other case involved Gerald Wayne Ledford, who in 2015 was sentenced to four years of probation after he admitted to threatening to shoot and kill Muslims on the cultural center’s Facebook page.
Whether or not threats on Facebook can be punished has been hotly debated in legal circles. But, in Keogan’s case, free speech attorneys said the charges aren’t particularly controversial.
“These statements are to be understood as a reasonable person would understand them,” said Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment professor at UCLA.
“I think a reasonable person would perceive this as a threat that he or his confederates would burn a mosque. If they show he intended for it to be perceived as a threat, it’s criminally pun-ishable.”
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