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Online Exhortation to Shoot Obama Was Protected Speech, 9th Circuit Rules

Posted Jul 20, 2011 7:48 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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A federal appeals court has ruled that an exhortation to shoot then-candidate Barack Obama was protected speech.

The 2-1 decision by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction of Walter Bagdasarian for threatening to kill a presidential candidate, report the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times blog L.A. Now.

Bagdasarian was convicted for writing “shoot the n-----” and predicting that Obama "will have a 50 cal in the head soon.” The La Mesa resident told investigators he was drunk when he wrote the comments.

The majority opinion (PDF) by Judge Stephen Reinhardt calls Bagdasarian “an especially unpleasant fellow” and his statements “particularly repugnant.” But his commentary "conveys no explicit or implicit threat” and is protected by the First Amendment, Reinhardt said. His majority opinion was joined by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski.

The Chronicle quotes UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who said the U.S. Supreme Court might be interested in the case. "This is a close case," he told the newspaper. "The line between punishable threats and protected vituperation, or even protected advocacy of violence, is not completely clear."

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