This week, what began as an innocent Facebook like ended with Ari Kohen, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, filing a complaint with the Office of Congressional Ethics against Republican Rep. Jeff Fortenberry’s Chief of Staff for threatening him over the phone.
It all started when Kohen liked a Facebook post featuring a hilariously defaced campaign sign in which Fortenberry was given googly eyes and his name changed to “Fartenberry.” Kohen was one of 130 people who liked the post.
According to HuffPost, a Fortenberry campaign staffer then “took a screenshot of Kohen’s dastardly Facebook like... then notified the congressman’s D.C. campaign office (and also, apparently, Kohen’s employers).”
This is insane enough, but Fortenberry’s Chief of Staff, Dr. William “Reyn” Archer III, for some reason took it upon himself to call Kohen and threaten him over the phone. A recording of the call was later posted on YouTube by the political group Seeing Red Nebraska.
On the call, Archer is heard scolding Kohen for liking a post that he says, could be seen as encouraging vandalism.
“What you’re liking is vandalism,” Archer says on the recording.
“No, I’m not,” Kohen responds, incredulously. “Your argument is that anything I like on Facebook represents an endorsement by me of the thing ― not the post, but the thing ― that is happening in the world?”
“Correct,” Archer replies.
The argument between the two, which lasted nearly an hour in total, escalated to the point that Archer threatened to take the conflict public.
“We have a First Amendment opportunity to put you out there in front of everybody,” Archer says. “We can do that publicly. Would you like that? That’s our First Amendment right.”
Instead, it was Kohen who made the absurd confrontation public in a Twitter thread today, explaining what happened in the call and why he decided to make a official complaint against Archer to the Office of Congressional Ethics.
Kohen’s thread continued:
The implication was that he would work to create a right-wing troll storm, using his platform and his connections within right-wing media outlets. In the past, such efforts have directly resulted in weeks of threatening letters, voicemails, and email messages to faculty members who found themselves publicly called out in this way (including several of my colleagues at UNL). These have included death threats.
This is obviously a violation of my First Amendment right to free speech. But more than that, Archer’s threat to name me publicly as some sort of evil liberal professor happened on Friday afternoon, right before Shabbat. Less than 15 hours later, a heavily armed man walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh in murdered 11 Jews because of a conspiracy theory, shared publicly by prominent right-wing politicians, that Jews are responsible for bringing undesired immigrants to the US.
This horrible act of violence could very easily have happened to me, my family, and my community; *real* violence easily could have been the result of the actions Archer threatened to take against me.
“His intention was to violate my First Amendment rights; to have a chilling effect on faculty speech. That’s obviously hugely problematic by itself, and then he threatened me,” Kohen told HuffPost, when asked about the conversation. “If you listen to the recording, it’s very clear. It’s worded as a threat, and the way he says it, it comes off as aggressive.”
“If there wasn’t this whole attempt to intimidate and threaten, if there wasn’t a shooting at a synagogue the day after they called me, I wouldn’t have thought anything about it,” he said.
Archer has denied threatening Kohen.
“In his Twitter post, the professor appears to have redacted large parts of our conversation, since it was 45 minutes long,” Archer told HuffPost. ”[Kohen] followed up with a lengthy thank you note from him looking forward to future opportunities for dialogue and mutual collaboration.”
Kohen said he did send a follow up email after the conversation thanking Archer for the communication, and “also asked why people in positions of authority are using that authority to try and intimidate people,” according to HuffPost. He says he plans to release that communication as well.
Kohen is right—Archer’s warning that he could create an online firestorm around Kohen’s politics is in fact a very real threat. Targeted harassment of university faculty through social media and in real life is a growing problem. And after the horrible synagogue massacre and the 15 mail bombs sent to Democratic leaders and the media in the last few weeks, it’s clearer than ever that an online conversation that pushes conspiracy theories and hatred against certain groups can have devastating real-world consequences. It seems that in 2018 we can’t even enjoy a good fart joke without someone ruining it for everyone.