Right-wingers have discovered that it is a relatively simple trick to turn a legal process intended to protect those at risk of domestic abuse into a weapon of personal destruction. All that's needed is a friendly judge, obsessive-compulsive tendencies, a deep mean streak, and time. On one level, this is the story of one man's experience with vicious right-wing online operatives. On another, it's representative of the overall right-wing strategy of using scorched-earth tactics to discredit and destroy their opponents.
Launching the campaign
In 2012, a group of right-wing bloggers decided to go after Brett Kimberlin -- a guy with a past ripe for exploitation. This is not a post about Brett Kimberlin or his past. You can read Alex Pareene's article for the background on that. Kimberlin is not the focus of this story, but their attacks are the reason 59-year old Navy veteran Bill Schmalfeldt became their target.
Schmalfeldt wrote stories in Kimberlin's defense which took dead aim at the Breitbart cabal. In the process, Schmalfeldt became an easy proxy for their real target. Disabled and housebound, Schmalfeldt's ability to write and speak was his outlet for activism, which he used liberally.
Schmalfeldt wasn't gentle. In some cases, he stepped outside the boundaries of normal journalistic standards and climbed down in his opponents' gutter. At other times, he hit them just a little too close to home for their comfort, exposing lies, funding sources and possible motives for their anti-Kimberlin campaign.
Online trolls unboundFeeding the trolls isn't a good idea. But what do you do when the trolls seek you out, hunt you down, follow your every move, and then file hundreds of criminal charges in Maryland courts against you in order to silence you permanently?
Sometimes you react, and sometimes you react badly.
Schmalfeldt did both, and on more than one occasion. Any human being facing the physical and emotional fallout of a years-long campaign of harassment and verbal abuse might reach that point, particularly when he was battling the ravages of a degenerative disease along with battling trolls.
Bill Schmalfeldt was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease in 2000. Soon after, he was forced to retire from his job due to physical limitations. As his world began to shrink, he became an advocate for people suffering with Parkinson's. He eventually underwent experimental deep brain surgery as part of a research project to study ways to slow the progress of the disease. His own disease continued to progress until his physical impairment became so great he was no longer able to function in the role of advocate.
Parkinson's is a particularly debilitating illness because it degrades motor skills, emotional responses and cognitive skills all at the same time. Bill has been fortunate enough to retain his intellect, but he struggles with depression and a lack of impulse control. He cannot stand on his own for any length of time. His particular type of Parkinson's causes his body to go completely rigid without warning. He is, therefore, confined to his home for the most part, with his wife serving as caregiver.
Faced with limited options, Schmalfeldt turned to the Internet, social networks, and online outlets, but was unfortunate enough to attract vicious adversaries in the process.
A loophole big enough to drive a truck through
A peace order request is a public record, and each request is reviewed by a Commissioner before being heard by a judge. The role of the Commissioner is to decide whether the request is reasonable and should be heard. If the decision is made to go forward, there is a trial in District Court.
Enter Breitbart devotee and Westminster, Maryland resident William JJ Hoge. Hoge runs his own blog, Hogewash.com. He is conservative, may possibly be aligned with the militia and sovereign citizen movements, and believes fervently in liberty and free speech -- for conservatives. In the conservative online world, he's closely aligned with Robert Stacy McCain, Michelle Malkin, Lee Stranahan, and other Breitbart writers and editors.
Since 2012, Hoge, along with white nationalist Robert Stacy McCain and others, engaged in a systematic and purpose-driven effort to harass Schmalfeldt into oblivion. Armed with his blog, Maryland's peace order laws and the anarchy of social networks, Hoge began to write daily posts intended to discredit and shame Schmalfeldt. Referring to Schmalfeldt as "Cabin Boy," Hoge and friends watched carefully for any opportunity to belittle or harass him. Their goal was twofold: They sought a reaction from Schmalfeldt, and they wanted to add ammunition to their Orwellian legal claims that Schmalfeldt was harassing them. By provoking a reaction, they could file a request for a peace order, despite the fact that over 100 miles separated the two men.
To a large extent, it succeeded. Hoge filed numerous requests for peace orders which were routinely rejected by the Court. After they were denied, Hoge appealed. Finally, Hoge scored on appeal and found a sympathetic ear in Judge Thomas Stansfield of Carroll County, who had no experience with online social networks or blogs. Judge Stansfield granted Hoge his peace order under Maryland's domestic violence laws. Schmalfeldt was ordered not to contact Hoge at work or contact him by phone. (None of these things had ever happened or could happen because Schmalfeldt does not have the physical ability or desire to visit Hoge anywhere at any time.) He was also barred from contacting Hoge via email.
Judge Stansfield then added a new restriction unseen before. Schmalfeldt was ordered not to mention Hoge on social networks -- Twitter in this case-- by use of the usual convention, the @ sign. The judge stopped short of barring him from writing blog posts, but left him otherwise vulnerable to online bullying. In so doing, the judge stepped on Schmalfeldt's right to free expression while giving Hoge and his compatriots the run of the room.
Scorched earth warfare
Schmalfeldt's defensive responses gave Hoge ammunition to return to the courthouse where he filed 367 criminal charges against Schmalfeldt. Hoge alleged that the charges were warranted because the peace order had been violated. Each of those criminal charges earned a subpoena served by a state trooper, whether or not prosecutors choose to prosecute.
The law which permitted Hoge to self-file nearly 400 criminal charges was intended to give domestic violence victims a way to enforce court orders to keep their abuser at bay. Hoge abused that system to harass someone he simply didn't like.
Despite prosecutors' decision to dismiss these complaints out of hand, Hoge continues his baiting on a near-daily basis, while inviting his readers to step up and join him. His online community whiles away their hours in the comment section of his blog and social networks ridiculing everything from Schmalfeldt's appearance to leveling accusations that his Parkinson's disease is an invention. As the threads grow, the vitriolic tone of their discourse deepens.
Any bystander who comments on their activity can expect to receive messages like the one I did. Paul Krendler, a frequent commenter and co-conspirator with Hoge, suggested I "visit the deraged lunatic cyberstalker at his run-down mobile home" to stop Schmalfeldt "by any means necessary."
Krendler also authored a "parody" of Schmalfeldt on the same day describing him as "old and crazy, fat and demented," before launching into another seven or eight paragraphs of similar derision.
From a stranger's point of view, this may all feel juvenile and petty. But when juvenile activity compounds on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis, when every word one writes or utters is parsed and ridiculed, there's a point where it transcends mere juvenile behavior and becomes bullying and stalking behavior. Their most vicious "parody" is reserved for Schmalfeldt's disease, as though an unpreventable, degenerative disease is a legitimate condition to lampoon.Mockery of a disease ravaging another person's body is no more socially acceptable than overt racist comments are. Moreover, Hoge knows Schmalfeldt's disability is real, since he's hauled Schmalfeldt into court more than once to defend himself and seen him with his own eyes. He's aware that the Parkinson's is no invention, yet he remains silent. Adding insult to injury, they routinely invoke Jesus as their guide while laughing like frat boys over their latest 'joke,' which they usually say is really to "teach him a lesson."
Their march of hate touches on many different points -- harassment and humiliation of the disabled, freedom of speech, and elder abuse, to name a few. Their obsession with Schmalfeldt is as strong as his obsession to make them stop and leave him alone.
Authorities blame the victim
If Hoge's harassment of Schmalfeldt was solely virtual Bill might simply have the option to invent a new identity and reconnect with saner people in different venues. But this is not an option for Schmalfeldt. The combination of "lawfare", a standing peace order, and ongoing efforts to bait him into violating that standing peace order means he cannot escape.
When Schmalfeldt contacted his district court with clear evidence of harassment by other parties, the State Attorney acknowledged his dilemma, writing: "As to your claims that you have been the victim of harassment and electronic harassment by Mr. Hoge, we are struggling with a number of issues and have been researching what if any charges can be supported by evidence, and again, against whom. While we recognize the troublesome communications you have provided, there are some significant legal issues which likely will prevent any relief in the criminal justice system. " It is hard to understand how the same set of standards can bar Schmalfeldt's legal options while simultaneously being used to gag him.
When he followed up with the State Attorney on the status of their research, he was further advised to maintain a lower profile online in order to discourage harassment. That was the last he heard from them, in February.
Two months later, death threats began to roll in to Schmalfeldt's inbox. For the most part he ignored them, but lately they have escalated. One he received this month was from a frequent visitor and commenter to Hoge's blog. It said, "How'd you like to come home from your next dr appointment to find one of your mutts gutted, intestines spread all over your poop filled bed? keep it up, it will happen." This, along with several other unfit to print, graphic email threats prompted Schmalfeldt to contact the police. When officers arrived to take his report, they read the email and left, telling him to "stay off the Internet" as they drove away. I wonder, do they tell women not to wear short skirts to keep from tempting rapists?
Efforts to reach his state delegate and senator have been met with shrugs. Whether this is a consequence of their lack of understanding about how serious online harassment can become, or related to how access works with politicians, it leaves Schmalfeldt with no recourse at all.
The message they sent: If Schmalfeldt doesn't want to receive threats, he should simply turn off his computer. Let the terrorists win.
Why not just swear off the Internet?
Beyond my gut retort, which is to say that no one should be driven from any public space -- virtual or otherwise -- there is the fact that for Schmalfeldt, the Internet is his only outlet to interact with other people on a daily basis. None of his tormentors are housebound or suffering from any disability. They are free to drive their cars to work, mingle with society, drink with friends, and generally do what they please. But for Parkinson's sufferers, the act of standing and walking to the other side of the room can be the equivalent of moving mountains. Parkinson's closes the world of daily human contact, leaving sufferers housebound and mostly alone.
The best part of social networks and online interactivity is the door they open for those like Bill who suffer from disabilities and physical limitations. They can also be as much of a blessing as a curse, particularly if one has an opinion. There is no question that Schmalfeldt has an opinion, and he's not afraid to express it. This is what brought him into initial contact with the Breitbot cabal, and it's what now threatens to cut him off from interaction with other people online. Schmalfeldt faces the choice of ending his online presence altogether or enduring their daily humiliation.
What began as an ordinary Internet flame war between right-wingers and the rest of the universe has now become an orchestrated campaign to exploit Maryland's peace order system as a weapon of personal destruction against one disabled man. Hoge's misuse of this system is draining resources away from real domestic violence victims, too.
Ordinarily I do not like to write about, or give any attention to people who engage in death match online interactivity. But I've made an exception in this case because I believe they will continue to press the twin levers of his disease and their hate until they receive the reward they seek. Depression is one of the hallmarks of Parkinson's. Over the past 18 months a small group of determined people have done their best to leverage that depression into forced self-immolation. Schmalfeldt's instinct for self-preservation has prevented him from going there, but his growing sense of dejection and surrender could change that calculus.
In a perfect world, Schmalfeldt would use his considerable verbal abilities to speak and defend larger, more weighty issues that outrank whether a bunch of character assassins will succeed. He would simply turn off the torrent of hate by never clicking their links, never responding to their bait, and never acknowledging their online presence.
But this is an extremely imperfect world, where disease and human infirmity are being exploited with a goal to drive him to suicide or silence. The latter might well lead to the former, given the lifeline the Internet offers.
Every time Schmalfeldt is served with another bogus complaint under inapplicable domestic violence laws, his humiliation soaks in a little deeper. He has no money to pay attorneys, so must appear in court with the assistance of his wife unless the prosecutor declines to prosecute. Either way, he is still treated to the humiliation of having state troopers knocking on his door in full view of his neighbors to serve him with still more legal papers with a side order of shame for all to see.
There is a point where a human being can take no more. They are bullies; this is abuse. They will continue to put their verbal guns to a disabled man's head until he dies, at which time they shall dance a victory dance and move to the next target.
There ought to be a law...
Fixing it for Hoge and Schmalfeldt means putting a peace order on both of them or neither of them. Without the leverage of a legal threat, the online threat disappears. At that point, it would be simple enough to mute the baiting and block the threats, change identity or at least email accounts. That would end this interpersonal battle that has raged on too long.
But Maryland also needs to evaluate how they've structured their peace order process. A simple refinement to the law which limited peace order requests to those where there was an established domestic relationship or closer physical proximity would have eliminated this problem and ended a lot of stress and aggravation for Schmalfeldt. As it stands now, any Maryland citizen can invent the idea that a criminal act has been committed against them online, take that idea to the courthouse and turn it into a peace order. This entraps people in a litigation net who do not belong there while depriving them of the same protections other citizens receive.
Schmalfeldt is caught in that trap. He does not belong there. He has no advocates. He has no chorus standing by on the sidelines running interference for him. He has no lawyer, no spokesman. He is just a disabled guy who once dared to use his gift for writing to speak about what he saw as injustice. He pays his taxes, loves his wife, and believes he has the right to defend himself.
The misuse of legal statutes in this story speaks to the larger story of how the right wing uses the law as a hammer for their own benefit -- whether campaign finance or non-profit disclosure laws -- for the sole purpose of scorched-earth destruction of their opponent. It is a way of life for those who see engagement in warfare against their fellow citizens as their sole purpose. This is but one example of that, but it's one that happens every day to thousands of people.
Note: This article is considerably longer than what we usually publish. Sometimes stories need more space to tell properly. This is one, and there will be more long reads for you to digest on the weekends going forward. - Karoli