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Our View: Westminster man’s case, sentencing a cautionary tale, reminder ‘there are lines that cannot be crossed’ l COMMENTARY

A Westminster resident was sentenced Tuesday in federal court to home confinement and two years of federal probation after having pleaded guilty in February to the charge of making a threatening communication. He phoned in a death threat to a member of Congress in 2019.

We hope Darryl Albert Varnum, who said in court that he regretted making the call and never had any intention to follow through on his threat, is able to move on and live a productive life. We also hope his case serves as a cautionary tale. It’s clear the judge wanted it to.

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According to reporting by The Baltimore Sun, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett told Varnum that his punishment was about sending a message about discourse in today’s political climate.

“It not only has ramifications for you, but it has ramifications for our culture,” Bennett said. “It only took 30 seconds to drastically change the course of your life.”

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In addition to the sentence, Varnum lost his job as a Pentagon cybersecurity contractor as well as his security clearance. His attorney said Varnum had been drinking heavily to cope with physical and mental effects of Lyme disease, but has been sober ever since.

Varnum told the court he hopes people learn from what he did.

“I hope that my case sends a clear message to others that there are lines that cannot be crossed when it comes to communications with elected officials,” Varnum said at the hearing.

According to The Sun, details from court documents indicate the call was made to Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat. Authorities said Varnum called the sponsor of the Vaccinate All Children Act, and in a transcript of the call, Varnum said he would travel to Miami to kill her. Wilson was the lead sponsor of the bill, and the only one of the sponsors who is from Miami. Varnum later made a post on Facebook about the bill and compared it to the Holocaust. “All our guns are next!” he wrote.

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Varnum’s attorney, assistant federal public defender Brendan Hurson, said while vaccinations are an issue of importance to the Varnums, that Varnum read a post containing inaccurate information about the bill and does not hold “extremist ideology.”

We live in an era when extremist ideology is far too normalized, with members of both sides of the political aisle constantly ramping up the rancor, often emboldened by social media.

U.S. Capitol Police testified that investigations into threats against lawmakers nearly doubled from 2016 to 2017, according to NBC. A recent Washington Post article reported that, amid the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials are receiving threats and some have left their positions. Locally, members of the Board of County Commissioners and the Westminster Mayor and Common Council reported during meetings this spring that they had received threats after making decisions on hot-button issues.

One of our cherished freedoms in this country is the right to free speech. Everyone is free to criticize. But that right is not absolute. Making a threat — whether in person, over the phone, or written by hand or on social media — can be a crime even if the person who made it never intended to act on it.

It’s OK to get mad at politicians. It’s OK to denounce their actions or even their character. But anyone considering, even in jest, threatening a government official should remember this case. We hope it does have “ramifications” for others and serves as a reminder that there are, indeed, “lines that cannot be crossed.”

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