Former Greensboro Police Officer Timothy Bloch, who fatally shot Chieu Di Thi Vo in 2014, is pressing charges against police accountability activist Brian Watkins for cyberstalking, alleging that Watkins’ online activism amounts to harassment. Watkins and scoffs at the allegation, calling it an attack on free speech and pushing for the charges to be dismissed.
There are several components to former Greensboro police Officer Timothy Bloch’s complaint against activist Brian Watkins, but the two cyberstalking charges Watkins now faces revolve around several alleged Facebook posts that call Bloch names such as “killer,” “murderer” and “wimp.”
In Bloch’s first complaint, filed on May 8, the former officer who shot and killed Chieu Di Thi Vo in 2014 argues that Watkins “unlawfully and willfully did electronically communicate and electronically mail to Timothy J. Bloch for the purpose of abusing, annoying, threatening, terrifying, harassing and embarrassing him” by posting a picture of him and others of his daughters, calling them “children of a murderer” and saying Bloch should be in prison for Vo’s death. the charging document lists several specific alleged Facebook posts ranging from Jan. 4, 2015 to May 6, 2016 that appear to primarily focus on Bloch’s role in Vo’s death.
A second complaint filed nine days later and covering a slightly different time period alleges that Watkins also “repeatedly post[ed] on Facebook and linking Timothy J. Bloch’s name and sometimes picture to the posts calling him a murderer, a coward and a wimp.”
But in an 11-page motion to dismiss, Watkins’ public defender Brennan Aberle argues that the state’s cyber stalking statute is unconstitutional, and that Watkins wouldn’t be guilty under it anyway.
Watkins and Aberle said they believe the root of Bloch’s complaints is a Facebook page called Greensboro Police Public Abuse that routinely criticizes Bloch and the department. Aberle said in an interview that they are not conceding that the page is maintained by Watkins or that he is responsible for the posts in question. Watkins said in an interview that he does not have a personal Facebook page.
According to the “about” section on the page, its purpose is “to end the abuse and corruption of the Greensboro Police Dept.,” adding that “There is a great deal of video evidence showing their brutal and abusive methods.” A pinned post at the top of the page links to an article about Bloch in the Greensboro News & Record with added commentary saying things like “This guy can kill and get away with it.”
Watkins is a very vocal and visible critic of the department, regularly speaking at community meetings, city council and protests. At times, he’s directed people to the Greensboro Police Public Abuse Facebook page, and can often be seen holding up signs or wearing a shirt criticizing Bloch or the department at events. The charging documents do not specifically name the Greensboro Police Public Abuse Facebook page.
Sitting in his east Greensboro living room wearing a School House Rock T-shirt that says “Knowledge is power,” Watkins admitted that he isn’t always very tasteful in his criticism of the department and Bloch in particular. He relentlessly argued for the release of the footage of Vo’s shooting, and points out that Bloch initially took out charges against him just one day before the Greensboro City Council voted to release the footage.
“It was clearly to keep me out of that meeting to release the video,” Watkins said, calling the charges a “blatant effort” to keep him quiet.
Bloch could not be reached for comment before press time on Tuesday.
Watkins said he hasn’t communicated with Bloch directly online, and said that anything he’s shared or posted about Bloch has been publicly visible: images or text taken from Bloch’s Facebook account, news articles or his own critiques.
“Even if I did what he accused me of, it wouldn’t be illegal,” Watkins argued.
Aberle, Watkin’s lawyer, said in an interview that his client isn’t guilty under the cyberstalking statute. Even if you believe his client is the one running the Facebook page, Aberle said the law refers to electronically mailing or communicating to the other party, and it’s not clear that the page’s posts are directed to Bloch as opposed to the general public. Further, Aberle said the purpose of those posts isn’t to abuse, annoy or threaten Bloch, arguing that the purpose of the page and the alleged communication was explicitly for the purpose of speaking out against so-called police corruption.
What’s more, Aberle said the statute itself is facially unconstitutional because it’s “way too damn broad” and criminalizes too many forms of online speech and communication. He added that the law is unconstitutional as applied in this case as well.
“What he’s engaging in is political speech, and political speech is the highest form of protected speech that we have in this country,” Aberle said.
In his motion to dismiss, Aberle argues that, “Whether or not the defendant’s behavior was tasteful, it was unquestionably political speech and cannot be found to be criminal,” adding that “To do so would be to apply the cyberstalking statute against the defendant in an unconstitutional way.”
Watkins was scheduled to appear in court on the misdemeanor charges on Aug. 16, but said that while he was awaiting trial, Bloch apparently collapsed from a seizure in the hallway of the courthouse, and had to be seen by paramedics. A handwritten yellow sticky note in the case file, stored in the basement of the Guilford County Courthouse, says “8-16-16 wit here / pw had seizure.”
Aberle and Watkins are hopeful that the two cyberstalking charges will be dismissed, but express a readiness to fight it up to the state Supreme Court if necessary. According to court records, Watkins is due back in Guilford County court on Sept. 27.