The shooting victim at the center of the debate about politics, religion and free speech

Nicholas Thalasinos wasn’t shy about his beliefs.

He took to Facebook and Twitter several times a day to opine about radical Islam, President Obama, abortion and Israel.

Thalasinos was one of 14 people killed in the Dec. 2 attack at a holiday party for the San Bernardino County Public Health Department. One of Thalasinos’ co-workers at the department, Syed Rizwan Farook, and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire in what is the deadliest act of terrorism on U.S. soil since 9/11.

And in the days after the slaughter, Thalasinos has become the focal point of an incendiary debate about free speech and the use of social media as a tool for persuading and proselytizing.

A conservative Messianic Jew who believed in Jesus Christ as his savior while adhering to traditional elements of Judaism, Thalasinos enjoyed initiating spirited discussions about politics and religion with anyone who would listen.

He was seldom seen without his tzitzis — Jewish tassels — and was known for bright shirts, suspenders and a star of David tie clip. His social media persona was even less inhibited. 

Facebook administrators suspended his account so many times — he called it “Facebook jail” — that he created an alter ego to continue posting.

Thalasinos took to Twitter too, using the handle @LeastServant. “The OBAMA ADMINISTRATION keeps INSISTING ISIS ISNT Islamic — HELLO, the I in ISIS stands for ISLAM!” he tweeted Nov. 16.

And on Nov. 22: “Barack Obama has turned America from a SUPERPOWER into a STUPIDPOWER.”

It didn’t take reporters long to find Thalasinos’ Facebook page, or for at least one outlet to pass judgment:

“San Bernardino killers were radical, ISIS-loving monsters — but one of their victims was just as bigoted,” blared the headline on a New York Daily News column.

Some conservative news outlets, including Red State and Breitbart, found another target of outrage, slamming mainstream outlets for asking his widow, Jennifer Thalasinos, questions implying her husband was involved in an encounter that may have set off Farook.

As family and friends mourn his death, they say Thalasinos had every right to speak his mind.

And while they note that his social media feed doesn’t fully reflect a person’s full identity or character, they acknowledge that for Thalasinos, the Internet served as a community as well as a platform for self-expression.

It was there that Thalasinos met his wife, Jennifer Thalasinos, a second-grade teacher for the Colton Joint Unified School District. They bonded over their shared love of the 1980s CBS series “Beauty & the Beast” while he lived in New Jersey, and he moved to California in the early 2000s to be with her.

Friends say he doted on her, driving her to work each morning and always leaving messages on her Facebook page saying she was beautiful.

She believes her husband was targeted, at least in part, because of the beliefs he expressed so openly on social media. She has called him a martyr.

“We both felt that if something were to happen, if one of us was killed, that we’d be in a much better place,” she said.

Bruce Dowell, pastor of the Shiloh Messianic Congregation in Calimesa, said Thalasinos was an active member of the church, serving as a Shamashim (a role comparable to a deacon) and staying late after Shabbat services to help people to their cars and to help women carry heavy items.

"He was always praying with people," Dowell said. "I never saw him down. He was a talker, and everyone that knew him liked him."

Dowell said Thalasinos was "born again" as a Messianic Jew about two years ago and excitedly growing in his faith. He told everyone he met, in person or online.  “But never in a combative way,” he said.

Some took offense.

The night before the attack, Thalasinos wrote on Facebook that he had been threatened on the social media site by a man in Ukraine. The man, Thalasinos said, told him he would “never see israel as country” and that “soon you ll get your ass kicked.”

“My new hobby appears to be BLOCKING PAGAN ANTISEMITIC TROGLODYTES so I’m just passing this along to warn others,” Thalasinos wrote.

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After his death, dozens of people have shared on Facebook a meme with Thalasinos’ photo overlaid with the words: “A hero of the Christian faith. Nicholas Thalasinos, fearlessly shared the gospel with his Muslim killer.”

Kuuleme Stephens, an Arizona resident, met Thalasinos on Facebook about five years ago. He had messaged her to say he liked her posts on the Last Civil Right, a website for conservative African Americans with the motto “Saying What Others Are Afraid to Say.”

Stephens, who has been acting as a spokeswoman for Thalasinos’ family, said there are no plans to take down his social media pages because he had nothing to hide.

“It wasn’t hate. He was just expressing his views while everybody else was expressing theirs,” Stephens said. “If people would pick up the phone and talk to him, you’d hear that he was very calm. If you’d disagree with him, he wouldn’t snap at you.”

Brian Levin, a terrorism expert at Cal State San Bernardino, says that it’s important to keep a hard distinction between words and deeds.

Divisive rhetoric is over-the-top these days with growing use of the Internet and social media, he said, but rather than silencing those who “inject factual falsehoods and bigotry into the marketplace of ideas,” sometimes it’s best to just go to “another aisle.”

“These are times that test two important things — our tolerance toward inclusive community but also our solid embrace of the 1st Amendment even for views that we loathe,” he said. “No matter how offensive or disagreeable some statements might be, that one could compare an act of terrorism on the same plane as an act of offensive speech is ludicrous.”

Two weeks before the shooting rampage at the Inland Regional Center, Stephens said, she called Thalasinos during a lunch break and overheard him talking about Islam with Farook, a fellow health inspector.

Thalasinos told her that Farook was defending Islam as a peaceful religion.

The conversation, Stephens said, was “nothing out of the ordinary. It was like an everyday conversation. It didn’t set off any bells or whistles for me.”

Authorities have said that both Farook and Malik pledged allegiance to Islamic State on social media before the attack. Though law enforcement sources say they have ruled out theories of workplace violence, they are “intrigued” by the relationship between Farook and Thalasinos.

At a community vigil in Thalasinos’ hometown of Colton on Thursday night, with victims’ portraits lined up on a candle-lit stage, Jennifer Thalasinos, her husband’s tallit wrapped around her shoulders, told the crowd: “I know in my heart that when he reached heaven that he heard, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’”

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

Times staff writers Veronica Rocha and Richard Serrano contributed to this report.

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 13, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "SAN BERNARDINO SHOOTINGS - CAN WORDS LEAD TO DEADLY DEED? Attack stirs debate on free speech - Victim is focus of debate over politics, religion and free speech" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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