In late October, well-known lawyer Mike Cernovich, previously known for his self-help sites like Danger and Play and Fit Juice, as well as his legal site Crime and Federalism, became an unlikely center of controversy when he wrote an article regarding a 1st amendment issue of public interest. In a post this Friday, he alleges that the subject of the post, Chelsea Van Valkenburg, AKA Zoe Quinn, worked with a college student in New York named Margaret Pless in an attempt to have him killed in retaliation.
Cernovich’s article concerned a fight between Quinn and her ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, a fight which which would later spawn the internet movement known as #Gamergate. After his breakup with Quinn, Mr. Gjoni made a series of highly publicized internet posts alleging that Quinn had traded sexual favors with several reporters and journalists in exchange for positive press of her game, “Depression Quest”.
These allegations quickly spread across the internet and ignited a firestorm of criticism against Quinn, who responded by filing for a restraining order against Mr. Gjoni. As part of this order, she was able to get an injunction forbidding Mr. Gjoni from publishing anything else about her giving sexual favors to journalists, a clear violation of his first amendment rights.
Mr. Cernovich, who has maintained a public blog on first amendment issues since 2004, wrote a single brief post regarding the restraining order from the perspective of a first amendment lawyer, and followed it up with commentary on his Twitter account. This was the extent of his involvement in the matter. Nonetheless, he alleges that at some time after Zoe Quinn saw his post, she conspired with a woman named Margaret Pless to encourage others to “SWAT” him, in an attempt to have him killed.
SWATting is the practice of calling 9-1-1 emergency services and falsely claiming an emergency is in progress at a person’s residence. The hope is that police will respond with their SWAT teams (hence the name), and in the resulting altercation the target will be killed. (SWAT team raids are intensely dangerous things, and it’s common for innocents to be killed in them.)
In one notable SWATting case, an enemy of a Los Angeles district attorney called the police and claimed that the attorney had shot his wife. When the police arrived and he opened the door to speak to them, they saw he had a cellphone in his hand and very nearly mistook it for a gun. The police, thinking they were facing an armed murderer, came very close to shooting him.
SWATting has become more common in recent years as advances in caller-ID spoofing and internet phones make it almost impossible for the police to identify the perpetrator, and no less than three high-profile incidents have occurred in the last four months.
According to Mr. Cernovich, Zoe Quinn and Margaret Pless, acting together, came up with an executed the following plan: first, Pless would find and publish Mr. Cernovich’s personal information (his address, phone, and details of his appearance such as the color of his eyes, along with a photo of his home). She would share the details, along with a request that readers call the police on him and report him as a criminal. When this post was ready, Quinn would share it with her followers (she has over 30,000 followers on twitter, many of whom are known to be mentally unstable.)
The hope was that one of these followers would then SWAT Mr. Cernovich. In the worst case he would be ripped from his home one evening by a team of tense and potentially trigger happy policemen. In the best case (for them), he would be killed in the ensuing confrontation.
Mr. Cernovich took this threat seriously enough that he contacted the police, only to be told that since they are obligated to respond to emergency calls, they couldn’t guarantee his safety. For several days after Pless posted his home address, he was forced to flee to a hotel (he posted pictures of the hotel on his twitter account). According to Mr. Cernovich, at least one individual did in fact contact the police in an attempt to have him arrested, but fortunately, no SWAT teams were ever dispatched.
The evidence offered by Mr. Cernovich is fairly persuasive: Pless did tell her readers to call the police on him. The fig leaf she uses to cover herself is that she wanted readers to file nonsensical “harassment” charges against him. But if this is true, why, then, did she provide a picture of his home and a reference photo to aid in physical identification? Neither of these things are necessary to file a harassment charge. Nor is it necessary for multiple people to file a police report: a single call by a single person is all it takes. The only explanation for her behavior is that she wanted her potential SWATter to have this information to add verisimilitude to a fake 911 call, to increase the chances that the police would believe them.
Mr. Cernovich has also shown a statement by Pless that she was holding off on publishing his personal information until Quinn contacted her, proving that Quinn and Pless were in contact. Pless’s intent was immediately obvious to anyone with a degree of internet savviness, and the idea that Quinn, who has repeatedly spoken out against publishing an enemy’s personal information on the internet (and indeed claims to be the victim of such an attack herself) would not have understood what she was trying to do is ludicrous. In this light, her decision to share this information with her followers can only be viewed as the action of a willing co-conspirator.
Mr. Cernovich has stated that he will be pursuing legal action against Margaret Pless sometime after the start of the year. He has also spoken to the police, who may be considering criminal charges against her. What, if any, action he will take against Quinn is unknown.
I spoke with Miss Pless via twitter this evening, and she called this article “libel” and spoke of filing a “defamation suit” against unknown parties, presumably including this author. I offered her the opportunity to write a response that I would link to, but she refused, and instead opted to respond in a series of unconnected twitter posts, which unfortunately I cannot link to here. (If anybody knows how to link unconnected twitter posts, can you post some instructions in the comments?)
She did, however, ask me to make two corrections. First, though she did tell readers to “report Cernovich’s threats to his local police department”, her links went to the LA Crimestoppers website. Secondly, she graduated college in 2012. The significance of these corrections is left as an exercise to the reader.