Judge refuses to toss charge over threat to Muslim candidate

MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
FILE - In this March 23, 2019 file image provided by the campaign of Qasim Rashid, state Senate candidate Qasim Rashid poses at the Stafford County Courthouse in Stafford, Va. A federal judge refused Monday, Sept. 16, 2019 to throw out a case in which a North Carolina man is charged with anonymously threatening to lynch Qasim Rashid, a Muslim-American man who is campaigning for a state Senate seat in Virginia. (Marion Meakem Photography/Quasim Rashid Campaign via AP, File)

A federal judge refused on Monday to throw out a case in which a North Carolina man is charged with anonymously threatening to lynch a Muslim-American man campaigning for a state Senate seat in Virginia.

Joseph Cecil Vandevere is charged with interstate communication of a threat to injure a person in connection with a tweet directed at candidate Qasim Rashid. The tweet included a picture of a lynching and read, "VIEW YOUR DESTINY."

Vandevere argued his indictment must be dismissed on First Amendment free speech grounds, claiming the communication in question was not a "true threat."

"In 2019, the political arena necessarily includes the public exchange of political views that occurs daily on Twitter and other social media sites," wrote his attorney, Andrew Banzhoff.

However, U.S. District Judge Max Cogburn Jr. said he cannot rule as a matter of law that the alleged threat was "political hyperbole" or that "no reasonable person would interpret this communication as a serious expression of intent to do harm."

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held that "mere political argument, idle talk or jest" are not true threats, Cogburn noted. "However," the judge added, "a true threat dressed up in political rhetoric or artistic expression alone does not render it a non-threat."

Vandevere's attorney didn't immediately respond to a phone message and email seeking comment.

Vandevere's trial is scheduled to start Oct. 7, but his attorney asked the court Monday to postpone it because of a scheduling conflict.

Rashid posted a screenshot of the threatening tweet in March 2018 and reported it to the FBI. Rashid, an attorney who works on immigrant rights cases, is a Democrat on the Nov. 5 ballot to challenge an incumbent Republican state senator in Virginia.

The indictment identifies the victim only by the initials "Q.R." Federal prosecutors haven't named Rashid in court filings but said the victim's political campaign started well after the threat was made "and had no bearing on the threat."

"No mention of a political campaign exists in Defendant's communication and this Court should find that the government's indictment easily passes the mark for alleging a communication that could be interpreted as a serious expression of an intent to do harm," prosecutors wrote.

Vandevere was 52 years old when he turned himself in to FBI agents at the federal courthouse in Asheville, North Carolina, in July.

An FBI agent's affidavit says Vandevere also is accused of posting an anti-Semitic threat on a Florida synagogue's Facebook page.

Investigators linked Vandevere to a threatening comment posted in February 2018 on the website of a synagogue in Plantation, Florida, the affidavit said. A rabbi at Ramat Shalom Synagogue contacted the FBI after somebody using the name Bob Smith posted a "disturbing" comment in response to the rabbi's post showing support for the Parkland, Florida, high school where a gunman killed 17 people earlier that month, the agent wrote.

An "open source search" using Vandevere's telephone number linked him to the same Twitter account — with the handle "DaDUTCHMAN5" — that posted the threat against Rashid, according to the affidavit. The post was accompanied by a black-and-white photograph of the infamous 1915 lynching of a Jewish man, Leo Frank, in Marietta, Georgia.

Twitter suspended the "DaDUTCHMAN5" account.

The charge against Vandevere in North Carolina is a felony that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. There is no indication that federal authorities have charged Vandevere in connection with the threat posted on the synagogue's Facebook page.