A year before Cesar Sayoc Jr. allegedly sent mail bombs to prominent Democrats, including George Soros, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, he set his sights on Ilya Somin, a professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. Sayoc sent him death threats on Facebook after Somin appeared on Fox News last year to discuss immigration, Somin said Monday. Somin shares his thoughts on Sayoc’s threats and how he responds to online critics who get nasty.
How did you come to the realization that accused mail bomber Cesar Sayoc Jr. is the same person who threatened you online last year? Did a light bulb go off when you heard his name reported in the news? I had no light bulb at all. However, one of my former students did. He remembered the similarity between Sayoc’s name and the name of the person who had the Facebook account that made the threats. My former student contacted me and said, “Hey, it seems like it may well be the same guy,” because it was Cesar Altieri Sayoc and the other one was Cesar Altieri Randazzo. I looked at this online and did some research on early media reports on Sayoc. It quickly became clear to me that it really was very likely the same guy.
What was your reaction at that point? I was surprised and somewhat shocked. This is not the only threat I’ve ever gotten. But in general, I never expected that one of the people who write me emails or Facebook comments or whatever would actually turn out to be this notorious person who—at least in some cases—acted on the kinds of horrible impulses he displayed online. Most of the people who do online threats toward commentators fortunately don’t act on them.
What set him off in your case? It was an interview I did on Fox News last year about how public ignorance contributes to opposition to immigration. It was on the Tucker Carlson show, which has a large audience of people very hostile to immigration. One of those people was Sayoc.
What did his Facebook comments to you say? He threatened to kill me and my family and feed the bodies to Florida alligators. There were lots and lot of pictures of alligators plus pictures of dismembered body parts and the like.
You are a frequent commentator in the media, often on hot-button topics. Have you had other threats? This is one of three instances in which I’ve gotten death threats. One of the others was also related to the Carlson interview. While death threats, fortunately, have only been in three cases, there have many dozens of cases where people sent nasty, invective comments. I have to add there are a lot of reporters and commentators who have had much worse experiences than I’ve had, with death threats or threats of sexual violence. Sadly, this is a common phenomenon.
Have you been in touch with the FBI about your run-in with Sayoc? Yes, I spoke with the FBI just before speaking with you. I called their Miami field office, which I understand is handling the investigation. A person interviewed me for about 30 minutes. I basically told much the same story as in my Reason piece. [Somin shared some of his experience about Sayoc's communication on Reason's The Volokh Conspiracy Blog on Oct. 27.]
I have, for what it’s worth, also been in contact with the [George Mason] university to let them know to take precautions in case this guy mailed a mail bomb to me as well. In theory, it’s possible he sent one in the last two days before he was arrested. I think it’s unlikely.
How should law professors and commentators approach these threats? It’s important that we not be intimidated. If we are, and we do shut ourselves down, I think that encourages further awful behavior of this kind. If people do threaten physical violence, it’s desirable to report it both to the social media website and law enforcement. The other thing is that the overwhelming majority of these kinds of people who make threats online don’t actually have serious plans to carry them out. I think the goal is to intimidate and cause emotional pain.