For more than a decade, a former U.S. diplomat targeted an Arab American advocacy group with hundreds of menacing emails, often declaring: "The only good Arab is a dead Arab."
Messages from Patrick Syring typically contained racist descriptions of Arabs and accused the staff of the Arab American Institute — and specifically its president, James Zogby — of orchestrating terrorist attacks around the world. The emails terrified staff members, who drew up a security plan in case Syring ever showed up at their offices.
No one disputes that Syring's messages were disturbing in their content and frequency, but do they constitute a crime? On Thursday, a jury in federal court in Washington, D.C., said, "Yes."
Syring was convicted of 14 counts of threatening employees of the Arab American Institute, including seven federal hate crime charges. As the verdict was read, Zogby and his colleagues held hands. Some wept with relief.
"This is a nightmare that's haunted us for years," Zogby said. "We just wanted it to end, and, hopefully, now this means it will end."
The Justice Department's long history with Syring raises one of the most perplexing questions faced by prosecutors who work on hate crimes: How do you charge harassers who terrify their targets but keep their language in the gray area between free speech and criminal threat?
That question is at the heart of hundreds of cases across the country and is likely to become more pressing as bias-motivated incidents rise in tandem with the country's political polarization, said Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor and a leading scholar of hate crimes online. Her research shows that women and people from marginalized groups — racial and religious minorities — are the most frequently targeted for online harassment.
Because most hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, prosecutors tend to shy away from risky cases in the gray area and only go after the most egregious, felony-level violations. Citron said harassers know this and use it as a loophole to terrorize their victims, sometimes for years, by keeping their words just short of an outright threat of violence.
"They know that they can push right up to the line and nothing will happen," Citron said.
That's why it took so long to stop Syring, said Maya Berry, the institute's executive director and a target of the emails. She testified at the trial this week, describing how Syring's messages created a climate of fear at the office. Berry restricted access to the floor and gave Syring's photo to the security guard in the lobby, along with instructions to call 911 if she ever spotted him in the building.
"I'm aware of it when I stay late in the office, alone, and I hear the elevator ding. I'm aware of it in public spaces. I always sat in the back," Berry said.
The institute's ordeal with Syring began in 2006, during Israel's war with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Syring, at the time a long-serving State Department diplomat, saw Zogby interviewed on TV about the conflict and began sending him hate-filled emails and voicemails. Often, he spammed the whole office with his tirades, which included phrases such as, "Death to all Arabs."
Zogby's wife, Eileen, testified that she was so scared that she stuck Syring's photo on the refrigerator, among pictures of their grandchildren, so the family would memorize his face in case he showed up on their doorstep.
"There are so many instances where a mass shooting occurs and afterwards, people say, 'The signs were there, why didn't we take it seriously?' " Zogby said. "This is one of those situations where the signs are there and you don't want to be in the position where you just didn't take it seriously."
The institute reported Syring to the FBI, and he was prosecuted in 2008. That time, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of making threats and violating his targets' civil rights. His sentence included a year in prison. There was a collective sigh of relief at the Arab American Institute. Eileen Zogby even took Syring's photo off the fridge. But the reprieve didn't last long.
New emails began arriving just weeks after Syring's probation ended in 2012, according to court documents. The messages contained the same racist language as before and had the same chilling effect. This time, they continued for another five years, with Syring living in Arlington, Va., just a few miles from the institute's offices in Washington.
The latest prosecution came from a handful of emails Syring sent in 2017, when the Justice Department deemed he had finally crossed the line into what the law calls a "true threat," with messages that referenced death and ethnic cleansing. He was slapped with nearly identical charges as before, resulting in a trial this week that became an illustration of the complexities of prosecuting hate speech.
"He got away with sending us some pretty abhorrent and ugly statements for years and there was not a prosecution moved against him at that time. Because ugly speech is ugly, it's bigoted, it's not appropriate, but that's not what this trial is about," Berry said. "This is a trial about threatening to kill us, threatening us with harm. That's different than free speech."
In court, Syring's own attorneys called the messages "racist" and "disgusting" and acknowledged the fear their client caused. But they argued that it was still protected speech and cast the jurors as guardians of the First Amendment.
"No matter how offensive or outlandish, they are opinions," defense attorney Joseph Gonzalez told the jury. "The fact that they are racist does not make them criminal."
The jury disagreed, convicting Syring after less than a day of deliberation. Sentencing is scheduled for August. Syring's attorneys say they plan to appeal.