A GIF counts as a deadly weapon, a Texas grand jury has agreed this week. The decision came as part of the case against John Rayne Rivello, who stands accused of sending a flashing GIF to journalist Kurt Eichenwald in a bid to cause an epileptic seizure. The GIF in question was classed as an assault weapon in an indictment against Rivello, issued on Monday by a Dallas grand jury and the US Department of Justice.
Rivello sent the GIF to Eichenwald — who has epilepsy and has written publicly about his condition — in December, while posing as one “Ari Goldstein,” with the username @jew_goldstein. FBI investigators seized the account late last year after tracking him through his iPhone, and allege that Rivello sent several tweets and messages about his intentions to cause Eichenwald to have a seizure — including the text “You deserve a seizure for your post.” According to NBC News, other messages specifically say that “I hope this sends him into a seizure,” while others read “Spammed this at [Eichenwald] let’s see if he dies.”
Eichenwald says the GIF in question did indeed cause him to seize, theoretically making the moving image a potentially lethal object deployed to cause intentional harm in much the same way as a gun, a knife, or a letter bomb. The indictment breaks down the tools used in Rivello’s alleged offense, specifying that he used “a Tweet, a Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) and an Electronic Device and Hands” to commit assault with a deadly weapon. The document also alleges that Rivello was anti-semitic in his chosen target, picking Eichenwald to attack not just because of his views on Donald Trump, but because he was Jewish.
Legal experts say that the classification of a GIF as an assault weapon is unprecedented, but vary on their projected outcome for the case. Speaking to NBC, defense attorney Tor Ekeland suggested that First Amendment rights may provide cover for Rivello at trial, allowing him to argue that artworks and images are covered by freedom of expression. But Danielle Citron, a cybersecurity expert at the University of Maryland, said that Rivello’s direct targeting and stated intent to harm Eichenwald move the case away from questions of freedom of speech, likening it to hacking into a hospital insulin pump to kill a diabetic patient. The case continues.