Troy Smocks was sentenced to 14 months in federal prison and banned from the now-dormant social network Parler after he made violent threats on the app in the wake of the January 6th riots. Now Smocks is suing Parler for $370 million, accusing the company of violating a controversial Texas law which bars social media platforms from censoring users for their political beliefs.
Smocks’ Parler posts advocated for the insurrection on January 6th, 2021, and he rallied for more violence the next day. “Over the next 24 hours, I would say lets get our personal affairs in order. Prepare our weapons, and then go get’em,” Smocks wrote on Parler from a Washington, DC hotel on January 7th. “Lets hunt these cowards down like the Traitors that each of them are. This includes RINOS, Dems, and Tech Execs. We now have the green light,” he said.
Months later, Smocks pleaded guilty to making interstate threats, becoming the second person convicted of crimes related to the attempted insurrection. But the lawsuit accuses Parler of banning Smocks “solely because of Plaintiff’s selection and vote casting for a political candidate, then United States President Donald J. Trump.” The complaint makes no mention of the 59-year old’s criminal calls for violence.
The lawsuit, spotted in the newsletter Court Watch, names as defendants Parler, its former CEO John Matze, and Rebekah Mercer, the billionaire right-wing philanthropist who secretly funded the company in its early days.
Matze told Gizmodo he hasn’t been officially served in the lawsuit, and hadn’t heard of Smocks before the case. “From what I read, I feel like he is having trouble accepting his own life choices and is looking to put the blame on others,” Matze said. Parler and Mercer could not immediately be reached for comment.
In Smocks’ home state of Texas, a law passed in 2021 prohibits social media platforms from blocking, banning, or otherwise censoring a user based on their “viewpoints.” It’s a controversial law that experts say flies in the face of the first amendment. The constitution prohibits the government from limiting the free expression of citizens, which includes corporations. Taking down a post or an account is a form of speech. The apparent conflict between the state law and constitutional precedent have not been resolved.
It may not matter in this case, however, because the Texas statute makes a specific exception for speech that “directly incites criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence.” By Smocks’ own guilty plea, his posts did exactly that. But again, the lawsuit claims Parler only banned Smocks because he’s a Trump supporter. Parler was launched in 2018 as a refuge for conservatives and paid for by Mercer, a major donor to Trump’s political campaigns.
Smocks’ is no stranger to the legal system. He’s racked up 17 convictions since the age of 18, many tied to impersonating a member of the military or police. Smocks’ Parler user name was “Colonel007,” despite the fact that he was never a colonel (or James Bond). During his trial over his January 6th threats, Smocks, who is Black, argued he was being treated more harshly because of his race. Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who is also Black, called these claims “offensive” during the sentencing.
Parler was one of several online hubs for the insurrectionists and domestic terrorists who planned the January 6th attack on the Capitol. App data, which included GPS tags, showed Parler’s members breaching the Capitol Building. The platform wasn’t thrilled about any of this, and Parler reported the activity to the FBI more than 50 times before the riot. That wasn’t enough to shield the app from post-insurrection fallout. Parler ran into legal trouble and was temporarily banned from the Apple and Google app stores for failing to moderate its platform.
It’s another bizarre entry in the history of an app that’s earned outsized attention compared to the small number of people who ever used it. Most recently, Parler was purchased by a conservative media company, which took the app offline to reassess the business. Unlike the app’s founders, Parler’s new owner Ryan Coyne told Gizmodo he’s interested in running a profitable tech company, not a political advocacy group. How that attitude plays with diehard conservative users remains to be seen.
For a moment, Parler was the darling of conservatives from Sen. Ted Cruz and Alex Jones to extremist groups including the Proud Boys and the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi domestic terrorist network. But after the troubles stemming from January 6th, Parler fell behind other right-wing social media competitors, including Donald Trump’s Truth Social. In 2022, Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) said he would buy the beleaguered platform, but Parler called off the deal the same day Ye declared his love for Hitler in an interview. In January 2023, Parler laid off nearly all of its employees.