For more than a decade, a former U.S. diplomat targeted an Arab American advocacy group with hundreds of menacing emails, often declaring: "The only good Arab is a dead Arab."
Messages from Patrick Syring typically contained racist descriptions of Arabs and accused the staff of the Arab American Institute — and specifically its president, James Zogby — of orchestrating terrorist attacks around the world. The emails terrified staff members, who drew up a security plan in case Syring ever showed up at their offices.
No one disputes that Syring's messages were disturbing in their content and frequency, but do they constitute a crime? On Thursday, a jury in federal court in Washington, D.C., said, "Yes."
Syring was convicted of 14 counts of threatening employees of the Arab American Institute, including seven federal hate crime charges. As the verdict was read, Zogby and his colleagues held hands. Some wept with relief.
"This is a nightmare that's haunted us for years," Zogby said. "We just wanted it to end, and, hopefully, now this means it will end."
The Justice Department's long history with Syring raises one of the most perplexing questions faced by prosecutors who work on hate crimes: How do you charge harassers who terrify their targets but keep their language in the gray area between free speech and criminal threat?
That question is at the heart of hundreds of cases across the country and is likely to become more pressing as bias-motivated incidents rise in tandem with the country's political polarization, said Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and a leading scholar of hate crimes online. Her research shows that women and people from marginalized groups — racial and religious minorities — are the most frequently targeted for online harassment.
Because most hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, prosecutors tend to shy away from risky cases in the gray area and only go after the most egregious, felony-level violations. Citron said harassers know this and use it as a loophole to terrorize their victims, sometimes for years, by keeping their words just short of an outright threat of violence.
"They know that they can push right up to the line and nothing will happen," Citron said.
That's why it took so long to stop Syring, said Maya Berry, the institute's executive director and a target of the emails. She testified at the trial this week, describing how Syring's messages created a climate of fear at the office. Berry restricted access to the floor and gave Syring's photo to the security guard in the lobby, along with instructions to call 911 if she ever spotted him in the building.
"I'm aware of it when I stay late in the office, alone, and I hear the elevator ding. I'm aware of it in public spaces. I always sat in the back," Berry said.
The institute's ordeal with Syring began in 2006, during Israel's war with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Syring, at the time a long-serving State Department diplomat, saw Zogby interviewed on TV about the conflict and began sending him hate-filled emails and voicemails. Often, he spammed the whole office with his tirades, which included phrases such as, "Death to all Arabs."
Zogby's wife, Eileen, testified that she was so scared that she stuck Syring's photo on the refrigerator, among pictures of their grandchildren, so the family would memorize his face in case he showed up on their doorstep.
"There are so many instances where a mass shooting occurs and afterwards, people say, 'The signs were there, why didn't we take it seriously?' " Zogby said. "This is one of those situations where the signs are there and you don't want to be in the position where you just didn't take it seriously."
The institute reported Syring to the FBI, and he was prosecuted in 2008. That time, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of making threats and violating his targets' civil rights. His sentence included a year in prison. There was a collective sigh of relief at the Arab American Institute. Eileen Zogby even took Syring's photo off the fridge. But the reprieve didn't last long.
New emails began arriving just weeks after Syring's probation ended in 2012, according to court documents. The messages contained the same racist language as before and had the same chilling effect. This time, they continued for another five years, with Syring living in Arlington, Va., just a few miles from the institute's offices in Washington.
The latest prosecution came from a handful of emails Syring sent in 2017, when the Justice Department deemed he had finally crossed the line into what the law calls a "true threat," with messages that referenced death and ethnic cleansing. He was slapped with nearly identical charges as before, resulting in a trial this week that became an illustration of the complexities of prosecuting hate speech.
"He got away with sending us some pretty abhorrent and ugly statements for years and there was not a prosecution moved against him at that time. Because ugly speech is ugly, it's bigoted, it's not appropriate, but that's not what this trial is about," Berry said. "This is a trial about threatening to kill us, threatening us with harm. That's different than free speech."
In court, Syring's own attorneys called the messages "racist" and "disgusting" and acknowledged the fear their client caused. But they argued that it was still protected speech and cast the jurors as guardians of the First Amendment.
"No matter how offensive or outlandish, they are opinions," defense attorney Joseph Gonzalez told the jury. "The fact that they are racist does not make them criminal."
The jury disagreed, convicting Syring after less than a day of deliberation. Sentencing is scheduled for August. Syring's attorneys say they plan to appeal.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
If you spend years emailing someone racial slurs and wishing them dead, is that free speech or a crime? That is the question a jury tackled this week in the trial of a former U.S. diplomat. And today that jury found him guilty on federal charges for threatening an Arab American group. NPR's Hannah Allam reports.
HANNAH ALLAM, BYLINE: James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute. It's a small nonprofit he co-founded in the 1980s to protect the rights of an estimated 3 million Americans with Arab heritage. Like any civil rights activists, Zogby has gotten his share of hate mail but none quite like the messages from Patrick Syring.
JAMES ZOGBY: All Arabs must die. America cleansed of Zogby would be a better America. You should die. That's not language that's free speech. It's just not. It's just not.
ALLAM: Syring began sending these messages when he worked at the State Department, where he spent two decades, including a posting in Lebanon. And they continued after his retirement. In all, he sent more than 700 messages demonizing Arabs in general and blaming Zogby personally for high-profile terrorist attacks. One common refrain - the only good Arab is a dead Arab. Zogby says the repeated references to death terrified his wife, Eileen. She put a photo of Syring on the refrigerator among pictures of their grandkids so the family could memorize his face and stay alert.
ZOGBY: She would leave the house and see a car parked and then go back in and check, look at the face one more time, go back out and look and see, is that him? You don't know. There are so many instances where a mass shooting occurs and afterwards people say the signs were there; why didn't we take it seriously?
DANIELLE CITRON: This case is one of many where law is frustrating us.
ALLAM: That's Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and one of the nation's leading experts on online harassment. She says hundreds of incidents like this are reported nationwide every year, but only about 30 make it to prosecution. That's partly because the language is often menacing but lands in a gray area between free speech and criminal threat.
CITRON: They know that they can push right up to the line and nothing will happen.
ALLAM: Citron says women and people who belong to marginalized groups - racial and religious minorities - are the main targets of online harassment. And if they seek help from the authorities, it's basically luck of the draw as to whether the case goes anywhere. Unless it's an egregious felony-level incident, Citron says, prosecutors are likely to pass.
CITRON: It's a misdemeanor; I don't feel like I can do it. And that's just a value choice. It just wasn't worth their time.
ALLAM: The Arab American Institute first reported Syring to the FBI more than a decade ago. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to threatening employees and was sentenced to a year in prison. There was a collective sigh of relief at the institute. Zogby's wife even took Syring's photo off the fridge. But the reprieve didn't last. New emails began arriving just weeks after his probation ended in 2012 and continued for the next five years. Maya Berry, the institute's executive director, says she constantly worries. He lives just a few miles away.
MAYA BERRY: I'm aware of it when I stay late in the office alone and I hear the elevator ding. I am aware of it in public spaces. I always sat in the back.
ALLAM: At the trial, Syring's own attorneys called the messages racist and disgusting and acknowledged the fear their client caused. But they argued that it was still protected speech and not a crime. Defense attorney Joseph Gonzalez told the jury no matter how offensive or outlandish, they are opinions. The jury disagreed. Searing was convicted on 14 counts, including seven federal hate crime charges. The Arab American activists cried and hugged one another as the verdict was read. They hope it'll be the end of a long nightmare, but they know the work they do in this political climate means they're likely to face another harasser someday.
ZOGBY: Part of me wonders who's going to be the next one.
ALLAM: Sentencing is scheduled for August. Syring's attorneys say they plan to appeal. Hannah Allam, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.