Constitutional Law

Alleged Web Threats to Murder 3 Judges Spark 1st Amendment Debate

Yesterday’s arrest of a so-called hate blogger for allegedly posting material on the Internet that threatened the lives of three federal judges in Chicago is sparking debate about permissible political speech.

Harold Charles “Hal” Turner allegedly put up an Internet blog post saying that three 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges “deserve to be killed” and publishing their photos, addresses and a map of the court where they work, after they published an opinion he didn’t like earlier this month.

However, this doesn’t seem to be a “true threat” falling outside the scope of First Amendment protections, writes Reason magazine. “Turner did not actually threaten to commit violence; he simply argued that violence would be justified.”

Authorities say Turner additionally stated, in the same June 2 post: “Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty. A small price to pay to assure freedom for millions,” reports the New York Times. And then Turner allegedly went on to add that the three should be made “an example” of, sending a message to other federal judges: “Obey the Constitution or die.”

As an earlier post on the case details, Turner is also accused of having explicitly pointed in his Internet postings to an actual case in which the husband and mother of a federal judge in Chicago were murdered by a disgruntled litigant at her home in 2005.

There is no evidence that Turner or anyone else acted in connection with his comments, the Times and Reason point out.

While courts traditionally have found the First Amendment permits offensive speech that doesn’t amount to a “true threat,” a federal appeals court in California upheld in 2002 a $109 million jury verdict against a group that distributed “wanted posters” of abortion doctors, crossing out those who were already dead, the Times recounts.

Referring to the same case, an abstract of a law review article posted by the Social Science Research Network essentially argues that First Amendment law needs to be tailored to fit the unique situations presented by the Internet.

The intended intimidating effect of such Web postings can prevent individuals from engaging in lawful and even constitutionally protected activities. Hence, they can be a legitimate arena for state action even if the speech doesn’t constitute a direct threat, according to professor William Funk of Lewis & Clark Law School.

Joan Lukey, a First Amendment attorney who says she has personally experienced such Web attacks while representing crime novelist Patricia Cornwell, has been pushing for federal legislation that would criminalize them.

Additional coverage:

Associated Press: “No Bail for NJ blogger accused of threatening judges”

Updated at 4:37 p.m. to link to AP article about bail denial.

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