The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of California has sought and obtained an indictment against a young man named Stephen Cebula for sending online threats to Blizzard Entertainment, the freakishly successful powerhouse behind the Warcraft, Starcraft, and Diablo games as well as many others. The case is notable because it's so rare: there's so much threatening behavior online, and so little of it is addressed by the criminal justice system.
Stephen Cebula seems overtly disturbed. The search warrant for his home and subsequent criminal complaint tell a tale of him engaging in bigoted trash talk with other players on the Blizzard game "Heroes of the Storm," ranging from racial epithets to comments like "I will kill your family bitch" and fantasies about raping a child at Disneyland. Blizzard suspended Cebula's ability to communicate with other players. Cebula — perhaps tutored in law and political theory on Reddit, or by Milo Yiannopoulos — saw this as an outrageous violation of his freedom. He used his Facebook account "tedbundyismygod1" to send two threatening messages to Blizzard:
Careful blizzard … I live in California and your headquarters is here in California …. You keep silencing me in Heroes of the STorm and I may or may not pay you a visit with an AK47 amongst some other "fun" tools.
You keep silencing people in heroes of the storm and someone who may live in California might be inclined to "cause a disturbance" at your headquarters in California with an AK47 and a few other "opportunistic tools" …. It would be a shame to piss off the wrong person. Do you not agree blizzard?
Thus Cebula stood up for all the depraved manchildren of the internet who believe they have a moral right to squat on other people's property and yell "nigger" at passers-by.
Anyway, Blizzard reported the threats to the FBI. Since it was mega-corporation Blizzard calling — and not any one of the hundreds or thousands of Americans without lawyers and IT departments and security teams who get such threats every day — the FBI investigated, and quickly found Cebulba through his Blizzard account information at IP address. They discovered records of a 2015 incident in which he surrendered to Sheriff's deputies after making threats to kill someone at a park and to kill his sister, overweight people, and "various others that did not meet his specific views." He was committed for a 72-hour period then. The affidavit also suggests that he was in the system as a juvenile for threats.
The affidavit in support of the criminal complaint linked above — which is a brief addendum to the search warrant affidavit — notes that the FBI found Cebula at home, Mirandized him, and questioned him. Cebula admitted, among other things, that he intended to scare the people at Blizzard he had threatened and that he had looked things up like Blizzard's location in order to make his threats more credible. He also talked about his fantasies of violent assaults on children and of sexual assault of his five-year-old niece who lives in his home.
After his first appearance, Cebula was detained without bail based on the court's finding that he's a flight risk and a risk to others and bail conditions can't manage those risks. The court particularly took into account his suicidal and homicidal ideation. He's represented by the Federal Public Defender, who will likely do a good job for him. They already launched a creative and aggressive, if futile, attack on the indictment on the grounds that Cebula and Blizzard were both in California and thus the threats did not involve interstate commerce as required by the federal threat statute.
Cebula is charged with making threats under Title 18, United States Code, section 875. That's the same statute that was at issue in the Supreme Court's Elonis decision last year. Elonis concerned the intent the government must prove to convict someone under Section 875. Everyone agrees that a threat — to be outside the protection of the First Amendment — must be objectively threatening. That is, the government must be able to prove that a reasonable person would take it as a genuine expression of intent to do harm. The remaining question is whether the defendant must intend for the statement to be taken as a real threat — that is, whether there is also a subjective test. The Supreme Court didn't fully resolve this, suggesting that the government must prove at least that the threatener was reckless as to the impact of his or her threats, but not deciding whether there must be specific intent to threaten. In the meantime, most federal prosecutors are proceeding on the assumption that they must prove subjective intent.
Both subjective and objective intent can be more challenging to prove in the context of the internet, where insincere trash talk is so common. Here the prosecution has the benefit of Cebula's statements to the FBI admitting the elements of the offense by admitting that he intended to scare people at Blizzard. That statement makes even an insanity defense very difficult, because it suggests he understood the nature and quality of his acts and the impact they would have on people.
This is an ugly case. It's ugly because it's about untreated mental illness. It's ugly because for every corporation like Blizzard that gets federal law enforcement attention in an incredibly rare threats prosecution, thousands of individuals without such power and influence live in fear of Cebula's moral and intellectual ilk. It's ugly because I guarantee you that Cebula has fans. That's what online culture is like.
Edited to add: Naturally most media covering this reports that he's facing "up to five years in federal prison," which is indeed the statutory maximum. As I often discuss, the statutory maximum has very little relation to the actual probable sentence. The recommended range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines — which will be the starting point for the judge, who may go above or below — is likely about 10-16 months before any credit for a guilty plea.
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