Editorial

When does free speech become a threat?

Wayne Spindler, an Encino attorney with a long history of outrageous behavior at Los Angeles City Council meetings, was arrested last week for submitting a public-comment card depicting a body hanging from a tree, a burning cross, a robed Klan-like figure holding a noose — along with a sign calling Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson a highly charged racial epithet. 

Spindler's card was vile, repugnant and offensive. But was it criminal?

Los Angeles police thought so. Officers arrested him last Friday, two days after the committee hearing, and booked him on one felony count of making a criminal threat. 

Spindler is a regular and noxious presence at city meetings, sometimes wearing a KKK hood himself and often using profanity in his comments. Wesson said at a Thursday news conference that he was worried by Spindler’s increasingly outrageous behavior and considered the comment card a direct threat. If that's the case, it is understandable that he reported his safety concerns to the LAPD.

But this is no open-and-shut case, as Los Angeles leaders surely know. Courts have rightly given members of the public tremendous leeway to say vile and offensive things – as long as their comments are not "true threats," which are not protected under the First Amendment. But what is a true threat? When does an offensive comment or a vile expression of opinion cross the line?  Generally, it must be made with the intent to threaten and it must cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety.  The law under which Spindler was charged speaks to statements "so unequivocal, unconditional, immediate, and specific as to convey to the person threatened a gravity of purpose and an immediate prospect of execution of the threat, and thereby causes that person reasonably to be in sustained fear for his or her own safety..."

It’s not obvious that Spindler’s comment card qualifies. The use of the N-word, for instance, is horribly offensive, but it is nevertheless a protected form of expression. The depiction of the noose and the use of Wesson's name are certainly more worrisome and it's not terribly surprising that the council president would be shaken up by them. But whether they constitute a true, unequivocal threat of imminent danger is yet to be determined.  

Wesson and his colleagues on the City Council are understandably angry, frustrated and uncomfortable with Spindler and the handful of gadflies who repeatedly spew hateful language at public meetings.  But council members have often gone too far in the past in their efforts to crack down on speech they find disruptive and rude. In several cases, they've been rebuffed by the courts.  

Even ugly political speech is generally protected under the law. True threats are unacceptable, but city leaders and law enforcement should be wary about attempting to criminalize speech that is merely offensive.

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