The Catholic seminary teacher accused of threatening a Buffalo journalist provided the first hint Friday of what his defense may be: free speech.
Charged with cyberstalking, Paul E. Lubienecki stood before a federal judge and, through his lawyer, asked for more time to research his First Amendment rights.
"There's a question as to whether this case would even be prosecuted in state court," said defense attorney Rodney O. Personius.
Lubienecki, on leave from his job as an adjunct professor at Christ the King Seminary, is accused of leaving voicemail messages threatening the life of Charlie Specht, the WKBW-TV reporter known for his work investigating the clergy sexual abuse scandal.
During his client's appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr., Personius also raised questioned whether federal charges apply in this case.
Later, he told reporters that he believes the voicemail messages left for Specht were made in the context of a public debate, not a personal dispute, and therefore may be considered free speech.
While raising the possibility of a defense, Personius also left the door open to a plea deal with federal prosecutors.
"I'm not saying that's the route we're going to take," he told Schroeder at one point, "but it's worth exploring."
Specht, who has won state and national awards for his coverage of the Buffalo Catholic Diocese, is not named in court papers, but WKBW confirmed he was the target.
Arrested by the FBI earlier this month, Lubienecki faces two felony cyberstalking charges and, if convicted, a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
At the core of the allegations against the 62-year old Hamburg man are the harassing messages left for Specht, some of them threatening bodily harm and death.
After the final threat, Specht, his wife and children left their home and spent the next several days living with 24-hour protection at an undisclosed location, according to WKBW.
The prosecution, led by Assistant U.S. Attorney Aaron J. Mango, says the threats culminated in a final voicemail message Feb. 4, the same day the diocese announced the closing of Christ the King.
“You must be so happy the seminary’s closing,” the message said. “You’re a bad person. I know where you live. ... I’m gonna find you. I’m gonna kill you.”
The clergy sexual abuse scandal and the corresponding allegations of a cover-up by the Buffalo Diocese have led to the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone and the appointment of Albany Bishop Edward Scharfenberger as interim head of the diocese.
The scandal and the news coverage that followed also resulted in a diocesan compensation fund that paid out $17.5 million to 106 victims. The diocese is also facing more than 220 lawsuits filed by others who claim they were victimized as minors.