UCLA microbiologist allegedly makes death threat on Facebook
In a comment on Facebook, Peera Hemarajata, a postdoctoral fellow in clinical microbiology at UCLA, allegedly threatened the life of an opinion columnist.
By Sam Hoff
Aug. 20, 2014 9:53 p.m.
The original version of this article and the headline accompanying it contained an error and have been changed. See the bottom of the article for more information.
A UCLA microbiologist allegedly posted a death threat on Facebook Wednesday in response to an article about Harvard University’s relationship with Thailand, according to a tweet from a former Reuters journalist.
The opinion article, “Troubles with Thai Studies,” condemned Harvard officials’ collaboration with supporters of the May 22 coup in Thailand. The Crimson published the article Sunday.
In a comment on Facebook, Peera Hemarajata, a postdoctoral fellow in clinical microbiology at UCLA, allegedly threatened the life of the opinion columnist who wrote the article.
“I swear that if I saw this MF on the street I’d elbow his middle meningeal artery and leave him dead from epidural hematoma,” the comment said.
Hemarajata could not immediately be reached for comment. His profile on the Baylor College of Medicine website says that he attended Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok from 2000 to 2005.
UCLA Health System spokeswoman Dale Tate said in a statement that the university cannot discipline Hemarajata for his comment.
“While UCLA and UCLA Health System abhor violence and condemn any threat of violence, we have no jurisdiction or authority to censor such hateful comments made in social media when they are made outside the course and scope of an employee’s work,” she said.
On Tuesday, before the comment was posted, the Harvard Crimson took the article off its website because the author of the opinion piece, Ilya Garger, said he felt unsafe being in Thailand while his thoughts on the political strife there were made public online.
Garger is an alumnus of Harvard University and a former Time magazine reporter.
Samuel Weinstock, president of the Harvard Crimson, said the decision to take down the article temporarily until Garger left Thailand on Wednesday was unrelated to Hemarajata’s comment.
“We took the piece down before the Facebook comment was made, so it’s not because of that,” he said. “I heard about the comment, it’s certainly very disturbing and we’re dismayed to see that kind of thing happen. But at this point, the piece is out there.”
An individual can be prosecuted for making statements that present a “clear and present danger” to the community or knowingly making false statements that harm someone’s reputation. Threats of violence, if not considered hyperbole by a “reasonable person,” can also lead to prosecution.
Eugene Volokh, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and an expert in First Amendment rights, said he thinks the comment is unlikely to be seen as a true threat because of its absurdity and because Hemarajata has no history of violence or past relationship with Garger.
Volokh referred to the 1969 Supreme Court case Watts v. United States in which a young man named Robert Watts was on trial for saying during an anti-war protest that if he was made to go into the army and carry a rifle, “The first man I want to get in my sights is (President Lyndon B. Johnson).” The court did not find the threat to be serious, calling it hyperbole.
“Unless there is something more about the context that we don’t know about, it sounds like UCLA’s reaction is right,” Volokh said.
Weinstock said the paper does not plan to pursue any action against Hemarajata.
Correction: Hemarajata’s comment was made on Facebook.
Compiled by Sam Hoff and Jeong Park, Bruin senior staff. Contributing reports by Julia Raven, Bruin senior staff.