Kyler Schmitz liked to get home from work, drink wine, and vent on Twitter. What he said there turned him into a felon.
It started after the Orlando shooting last year. As a gay man who had spent nights in clubs such as Pulse, he was terrified and sad. As a longtime supporter of gun control, he was enraged. The way he saw it, Republican lawmakers offered prayers for the dead while ignoring the way they were killed.
Schmitz, who lives in Alexandria, decided to tell them what he thought guns were for: killing people. And to make sure they understood, in the summer of 2016 he sent them messages promising graphic revenge.
Even after he was warned by law enforcement, Schmitz didn’t stop. What had begun as a rebuke of gun rights became, to him, a stand for free speech.
Few of the millions of violent threats made online are prosecuted, and the line between legal and illegal is unclear. But Schmitz learned that the uncivilized world of online discourse does have boundaries, and threatening to shoot a U.S. senator is one of them. In an interview, the 28-year-old said he sees his criminal case as a cautionary tale for people who think that what they say online doesn’t have real-life consequences.
“It was really shocking when I saw the articles with quotes under my name,” said Schmitz, who has served his sentence of home detention and works as a waiter. “That’s a tough lesson . . . Even if you’re playing a character, you have to take responsibility for your character.”
Originally from St. Paul, Minn.,Schmitz was drawn to the Washington area by an interest in activism and desire to be part of a larger gay community.
He had dozens of Twitter accounts, most of them nonsensical. One retweeted every politician’s use of the word “but” with a tiny picture of poop. Another six or seven had as their avatars a rainbow kitten with a unicorn horn and butterfly wings. On his main account, where he pretended to be a bug-eyed bird, he asked scientists dumb questions about biotechnology.
It was from that account that he began lobbing threats.
“I am literally going to buy a gun shoot you in the face I watch your brains splat,” he tweeted at Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) “You will never ever again hurt anyone that I love I promise.” Schmitz targeted Blunt because the Missouri senator was the sitting congressman who had received the most donations from the National Rifle Association.
“I wanted to get a rise,” he recalled. “I wanted to make a point that I thought was civil disobedience and nonviolent, because I wasn’t going to do anything.”
Schmitz said he had always been outspoken; in seventh grade he gave a speech in school against homophobia. Older boys, he said, would circle him in the halls and call him names.
Schmitz thought his first tweet on the subject — saying, “I would never buy a gun. No one should ever need to. That said, I’m going to shoot some GIF #Guns at Republicans” — made that clear. But a committee staffer for Blunt saw the tweets and referred them to the Capitol Police.
In June, authorities visited Schmitz at his home and told him to cut it out. He said he would never actually use a gun, and tried to explain to them what he thought was mostly a joke. Schmitz says they didn’t make the law clear; the police said in court filings that they made clear he was committing a crime.
Either way, he knew he was near a line if not over it. What he didn’t realize was that the transgression would not mean an arrest or even a misdemeanor charge but possibly 25 years in prison. Instead of backing away from the danger, he danced around it.
“Good,” he thought, “Now I have an audience.” He hadn’t been sure anyone would see the tweets; he had only a handful of followers.
He began asking his new audience which of the messages violated the law.
“Only a moron would think take them as serious threats yet they do define the dangers of guns in a graphic and realistic way,” he tweeted at the Capitol Police. “What is illegal to say on Twitter? I want to know how much #FreedomOfSpeech I have so I don’t get into trouble with my words.”
Experts say the question can’t really be answered.
“The Supreme Court left it a little unclear where the line is,” said Leslie Kendrick, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law. “The law has to take into account the speaker’s state of mind. But what state of mind does that have to be, we don’t know. Does the speaker have to have the intent to intimidate, does the speaker just have to have knowledge that they will intimidate people, does the speaker just have to be reckless in whether they will intimidate people?”
Schmitz’s case is easier than most. Although a spokesman for Blunt told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the tweets appeared to be attempts at “parody, satire,” many of his tweets did contain explicit, violent threats. Blunt’s office declined to comment for this article.
“There are a lot of threat cases that are nonsense that ignore the context or the Internet culture where the statements take place,” said Kenneth White, a criminal defense attorney who often writes about First Amendment issues on the blog Popehat. “This really isn’t one of them.”
Still, Twitter is so permeated by threatening speech that it’s easy to see why Schmitz was disbelieving.
“A lot of people make very violent threats on social media without repercussions; nobody really does anything about it even if it’s reported. For the most part, people are getting away with it left and right,” said Nancy Baym, an expert in communication technology at Microsoft. On both sides of the aisle, she said, people have begun to see aggressive tweets as a kind of social action.
There was no second warning. Early on the morning of June 23 last year, two dozen police knocked in the door of Schmitz’s home. With guns out, they demanded all of his electronic devices. He was arrested and spent the next week in jail.
“The answer to my question — ‘Can you get arrested for tweets?’ — was yes, you can,” Schmitz said.
After his arrest he lost his job as an Uber driver, but that was the least of his problems. He learned he could face the possibility of five years in prison for each tweet. Federal prosecutors chose to charge five tweets, meaning he was looking at a potential 25 years in prison had he gone to trial. Instead, he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Alexandria to one count of making threatening interstate communications.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alexander Berrang pushed for a six-month sentence. Schmitz was ultimately let go with three months of house arrest, with exceptions for work, and two years of probation. He cannot use the Internet until March. He missed his brother’s wedding.
Schmitz is handsome and funny, a little too talkative and trusting for his own good. He calls his GPS monitor “my FitBit,” and jokes that although he lost his job he gained a felony conviction. He thinks a Kyler Schmitz in Montana who accidentally started a forest fire should be grateful for being pushed down on Google.
“He’s the unfiltered, funny friend who says whatever’s on his mind,” said his fiance, who asked not to be named for professional reasons. But, he said, the Schmitz he sees is not mean. He stops to talk to homeless people on the street and volunteers to take care of neighbors’ pets. As an Uber driver, he took NAACP donations instead of tips.
“Republicans turned into the enemy of everything he likes and stands for,” his fiance said. “It was that emotional for him.”
In some ways, Schmitz said, his prosecution was “the shock to my life that I needed.”
He attended Northern Virginia Community College, volunteered with political groups, and worked at a bead shop, but at 28 he still wasn’t sure what he was doing with his life.
“This was definitely a new side of me that I discovered,” he said “Next time, if I need a rush, I’ll go skydiving.”