Editorial: State of Maryland vs. The Takoma Torch

My name is Eric Saul, and I am the creator of the Takoma Torch. Unfortunately, this is not a satirical article. Instead, this a disturbing true story that I never would have believed was possible: the Montgomery County State’s Attorney has criminally charged me for a satirical tweet. Here’s how it happened:

Photo by KATRIN BOLOVTSOVA: https://www.pexels.com/photo/brown-wooden-gavel-on-brown-wooden-table-6077326/

At 1:00 a.m. on the morning of February 21, my wife and I woke up to the sound of loud banging. We were terrified. We went downstairs half-dressed and were alarmed to see flashing lights in our driveway and several deputies of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office on our front porch banging on our door. I asked them what they could possibly be doing at this hour, and they said they were there to serve me with a Peace Order that had been filed by a well-known, local political pundit and online troll, Ryan Miner, of Gaithersburg, Maryland. Also, Miner somehow convinced a district court commissioner to approve “criminal harassment” charges he filed against me. My crime? I ridiculed him in a tweet.

The tweet, made through my satirical publication, the Takoma Torch on February 2, said, “Ryan Miner Pokes Head out of Ground, Sees Laura Stewart Running for Board of Education, Six More Weeks of Being a Misogynist Shit Head” (this was posted on Groundhog Day, if you missed the joke).

Let’s be clear: Ryan Miner is no innocent victim of a crime here. First, Miner is a prominent public figure in Montgomery County and in the State of Maryland. He made a name for himself as a provocative political pundit with his well-known publication, A Miner Detail, and his social media account, Maryland Politics Hangout, where he often makes mean-spirited accusations about politicians and individuals. He also ran for public office in Maryland. He spends a lot of his time in the public realm badmouthing, insulting and name-calling many people on his social media platform, especially women, and then publicly threatens legal action against anyone who returns insults. In my case, he saw my mean tweet mocking his badmouthing of a female running for the Montgomery County Board of Education, and ran to the authorities, hilariously claiming that he “fears for the safety of his family,” a common line found in his standard “cease and desist” form letter he’s mailed to numerous people over mean tweets about him.

Furthermore, Ryan Miner initiated the entire online spat with me. About a year ago, he read an article about me and my satirical mascot, The Nimbee, on the front page of the Metro section of the Washington Post, and promptly took to Twitter to express his anger over a fictional character. Clearly bothered by my mascot’s nationwide popularity, he felt the need to instigate a twitter feud with me. He fired off multiple demeaning tweets about me, calling me a “sniveling trust fund baby,” “an online serial harasser,” and “a bully.” Seeing these tweets in my feed, I of course responded to him in my typical snarky fashion. Miner clearly couldn’t take what he was dishing out, and instead of letting it go like I did, he threatened legal action against me – a common response he uses for anyone he wants to silence.

Knowing Miner’s reputation for making these type of legal threats, I just ignored him for the most part, as I foolishly believed our justice system could discern baseless claims from real ones. Fast forward to Feb. 2 – Miner rattles off a dozen angry tweets about candidate Laura Stewart running for the Board of Education, calling her names and making personal attacks. This led to my Groundhog Day joke that triggered Miner to take legal action against me, where I find myself in my current predicament.

It should be deeply disturbing to anyone that Ryan Miner was able to weaponize the court system and effortlessly convince a district court commissioner to approve having the Montgomery County State’s Attorney violate the First Amendment by criminally charging me for a satirical mean tweet about a public figure – one who regularly attacks others who do not share his unpopular political views on social media. Think about that for a second – I called a public figure a name on Twitter, and now I am waiting to be prosecuted by the state for a crime. Imagine a world where anyone who says anything negative about Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity on social media would be prosecuted as a criminal.

This clear violation of my First Amendment rights should be an embarrassment for the Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s office, especially this district court commissioner for lacking the judgment to recognize that a political mean tweet is not a crime. Peace orders and Maryland’s harassment by electronic means statute are to protect individuals from true harm, from threats that fall outside the protection of the First Amendment. A mean tweet, devoid of any threat, is protected by the First Amendment. Moreover, a statement used to describe a public political figure in a satirical article after said public figure maligned a female political candidate is also protected by the First Amendment. Ryan Miner abused the legal system, using taxpayer funded resources like the District Court Commissioner and State’s Attorney’s Office for his own personal chess game. And, in doing so, the justice system allowed a true online bully — with a long list of court orders, arrests, and a history of violence — to weaponize the justice system to attack a local satirist exercising his First Amendment rights.

This isn’t some miner mistake – this ignorance in understanding the First Amendment has caused me real damages, forcing me to pay thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees to clear my name. It also reinforces the real fear that Miner will continue to harass me and others through the legal system, which he regularly threatens to do to others on social media.

What Miner was allowed to do was wrong and deeply disturbing for democracy. If people like Miner continue to be rewarded for this type of behavior, it will only encourage more people to run to the courts with frivolous lawsuits anytime they experience a mean tweet. Unfortunately for Miner, I don’t cave to bullies. With the help of my attorney, Robbie Leonard of Leonard and McCliggott Law Group, I will fight this to the end and will do everything within my legal means to make sure this never happens to me or anyone else ever again.