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Prosecution is unlikely for antisemitic messages seen around Jacksonville

 An antisemitic message was projected onto a building Downtown.
An antisemitic message was projected onto a building Downtown.

Even projecting hateful messages onto a private building might not lead to an arrest, legal experts say.

The antisemitic messages plastered around Jacksonville over the weekend were disturbing and distasteful, but they probably weren't criminal, legal experts say.

The state attorney, the FBI and the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office all said the messages — no matter how despicable — are protected forms of free speech unless the individuals directly incite criminal activity or threaten violence against a person or group.

The messages were displayed on highway overpasses and also projected onto a building Downtown and the back of the TIAA Bank Field scoreboard. But even displaying messages on a private building might not lead to an arrest, a legal expert told WJCT News.

"It’s not damaging the building physically, so it’s not like graffiti in the same way that spray paint physically damages a building," said Edward L. Birk of the Marks Gray law firm in Jacksonville.

If the message were displayed enough times that the public thought the building owners were promoting it, then the owner could purse a civil claim for damage to its reputation, Birk said. But charging someone criminally appears unlikely unless more information emerges.

"It’s not 'fighting words' and doesn’t incite people to imminent violence, so the government would have a hard time prosecuting or restricting it," Birk said. "In a sense, it’s akin to someone standing on a sidewalk outside a business and shouting the same message."

The antisemitic messages left a cloud over Jacksonville at a time when it was in the national spotlight while hosting the classic Florida-Georgia football game at TIAA Bank Field.

 This message was displayed on the back of a scoreboard at TIAA Bank Field.
This message was displayed on the back of a scoreboard at TIAA Bank Field.

That's when an electronic message appeared on the back of TIAA Bank field's scoreboard saying, "Kanye was right about the jews," a reference to Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, who posted antisemitic comments on social media earlier in the week.

A similar hate message was projected onto an apartment complex Downtown, and banners were hung on an Interstate 10 overpass on the Westside and on the Arlington Expressway. "End Jewish supremacy in America," one said.

Politicians and community leaders roundly criticized the messages as abhorrent, but authorities said there is little they can do.

"We have been looking into these actions and will continue to work with our partner agencies regarding these reports of antisemitic messages," the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office said in a statement. "At this time, the Sheriff’s Office has not identified any crimes having been committed; the comments displayed do not include any type of threat and are protected by the First Amendment. We will continue to monitor any reports of this nature to determine if they rise to level of a criminal nature."

The office of State Attorney Melissa Nelson said: "The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held such speech — even despicable speech — is protected by the First Amendment. If this office is presented with evidence indicating an intent to directly incite imminent criminal activity or specifically threaten violence against a person or group, then criminal prosecution may be implicated."

Nelson, like the Jacksonville Civic Council and others, denounced the displays. “The type of hateful, antisemitic rhetoric we witnessed over the weekend is repulsive and has no place in any community," she said. "We will continue to monitor these types of activities to ensure the safety of everyone in our city and hold accountable any who cause harm to anyone based on hate or animus.”

The FBI in Jacksonville assured the Jewish community that it was taking the incident seriously, but it repeated the message that even hateful views are protected by the Constitution.

"No matter how abhorrent or repulsive, expressing one’s views is protected by the First Amendment and not a crime by itself, but true threats are not protected speech," said Sherri Onks, special agent in charge. "Investigating these acts remains a top priority for the FBI because hate crimes are not only an attack on the victim — these acts are meant to threaten and intimidate an entire community. 

"FBI Jacksonville will remain vigilant and in contact with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and, if in the course of their investigation, information comes to light of a potential federal violation, the FBI stands ready to investigate."

Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, had a similar opinion.

The messages themselves do not appear to violate the law because the First Amendment protects even hateful speech, she said. And the projected message did not hurt any of the buildings it was seen on, she said.

Exactly who spread the messages remains unknown, but civil rights groups are pointing to the growth of extreme, white supremacist groups in Jacksonville and around the state — groups the Anti-Defamation league identified in a report a month ago.

The report concluded that Florida is home to an “extensive, interconnected network of white supremacists and other far-right extremists,” including groups operating in Jacksonville.

 NSF members held an antisemitic anti-LGBTQ+ demonstration in Jacksonville in June 2022
Anti-Defamation League
NSF members held an antisemitic anti-LGBTQ+ demonstration in Jacksonville in June 2022

In Jacksonville, NatSoc Florida — or NSF — has dramatically expanded its activities since July, holding demonstrations and distributing anti-Semitic propaganda in several Jacksonville neighborhoods, the report said.

Individuals associated with NSF held an anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ+ demonstration outside a restaurant in Jacksonville in June, wearing shirts with swastikas and holding signs that read, "Child groomers work here." Videos of the incident show the white supremacists harassing the restaurant’s patrons.

The Jewish Federation & Foundation of Northeast Florida vowed Sunday to continue to battle hatred in the city. "We are harnessing our outrage to bring action to our community," the group said in a statement.

The federation is organizing a vigil Thursday evening along with OneJax, an institute at the University of Florida that promotes diversity. The vigil for "unity and hope" will take place at 5:30 p.m. at James Weldon Johnson Park, 135 W. Monroe St., across from Jacksonville City Hall.

The Sheriff’s Office urges anyone to report future incidents at (904) 630-0500 or JSOCrimeTips@jaxsheriff.org.

Copyright 2022 WJCT News 89.9. To see more, visit WJCT News 89.9.

Dan Scanlan
Randy Roguski