Frederick Brennan, the founder of the fringe 8chan discussion board that disbanded after users on its far-right /pol/ subforum were linked to multiple mass shootings, could face arrest in the Philippines thanks to criminal libel charges brought by the site’s current owner, Jim Watkins.
Filipino news source Rappler reported on Thursday that Watkins—who remained largely obstinate in the face of a congressional investigation into 8chan’s link to extremist violence, may be facing a child porn inquiry in the Philippines, and has relaunched the site sans /pol/ as 8kun—has sued Brennan for cyberlibel after the latter referred to Watkins as “senile” and “incompetent.” Cyberlibel is a criminal offense in the Philippines, and those found responsible can face prison time.
According to Rappler, the Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 158's presiding judge Romeo Dizon Tagra has ruled that Brennan is guilty of the charge and issued a warrant for his arrest. Brennan is in the U.S. but lives in the Philippines and now could face six to 12 years in prison if he returns. Prosecutors argued that Brennan showed actual malice (which as in the U.S., is a complicated legal definition requiring authorities to demonstrate a false statement was made with the sole intent of harming another) and that he could not prove Watkins is actually senile.
Incarceration facilities in the Philippines are notoriously awful, with rampant overcrowding and gangs that greatly outnumber guards are powerful enough to exert de facto control over elements of prison operations. Leah Armamento, a member of the Philippine government’s Commission on Human Rights, told the New York Times, “When you are detained in Philippine jails, you are being tortured.” It thus seems unlikely Brennan will return to the country anytime soon.
Brennan started the site in the U.S. in 2013 as a haven for any and all free speech that did not break federal law. It quickly, and predictably, turned into a hub for some of the internet’s worst elements, including enthusiasts of the misogynist Gamergate movement, pedophiles, Qanon conspiracy theorists, and neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and various other far-right racists that congregated on its /pol/ subforum. The site continued to operate until a wave of mass shootings were tied to the site, with perpetrators of massacres at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand; a synagogue in Poway, California; and a Walmart in El Paso, Texas all having reportedly posted manifestos to /pol/ before the attacks. 8chan was more or less chase off the web by virtually all of the vendors that enabled it to stay online in the face of continual cyberattacks.
Brennan has tried to distance himself from the site, which Watkins received control over in 2015, and claimed that he no longer believes it should exist. In August 2019, he told the New York Times that 8chan is “a complete negative to everybody except the users that are there. And you know what? It’s a negative to them, too. They just don’t realize it.”
“I’ve tried to understand so many times why [Watkins] keeps it going, and I just don’t get it,” Brennan added. “After Christchurch, after the Tree of Life shooting, and now after this shooting, they think this is all really funny.”
Watkins wrote in his criminal complaint that “The exercise of the right of free expression and free speech like any other right enshrined in our Constitution comes with an equal burden of responsible exercise of that right. After all, the recognition of a right is not a free license for the one claiming it to run roughshod over the rights of others.” Brennan has appealed the verdict, according to CNN Philippines, saying he was “merely exercising his civic duty to inform the public about the people operating a website that hosted hate speech and white nationalist creed because it has already claimed the lives of many innocent people.”
Last year, Brennan described the charges to CNN Philippines as a naked attempt to intimidate him. Brennan lives with a condition known as brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair. He told the news network that he believed Watkins was “trying to intimidate me by making me feel that I can go to prison... I have a serious disability and there’s no doubt at all that I would certainly die in prison here. There’s no way I can survive in a local prison, that’s not even possible.”