Opinion: Threatening Obama: The high price of free speech


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If you shoot the president, you’re an assassin.

If you shoot your mouth off online, saying the president ‘will have a 50 cal in the head soon’ and that someone should ‘shoot the [racist slur]’ -- and you own .50-caliber weapons and ammunition -– you’re exercising your right to freedom of speech.

At least, that’s what a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in a case involving a Southern California man who made those online comments about Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. As The Times reported:


The decision overturns the conviction of Walter Bagdasarian of La Mesa, northeast of San Diego, who was found guilty two years ago by a federal judge in San Diego of violating a statute prohibiting threats to kill, kidnap or do bodily harm to a major presidential candidate. ... Bagdasarian, writing under the anonymous Internet identity of ‘Californiaradial,’ posted the comments on a financial site on Oct. 22, 2008, when Obama’s campaign for the White House was ascendant.

It’s an interesting time for the 1st Amendment. On Tuesday, attorney Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, writing about Britain’s phone-hacking tabloid scandal, argued in an Op-Ed article that tabloid journalists in the United States are being sheltered by a justice system too beholden to the 1st Amendment.

Although the law provides us with the tools we need to punish crimes related to free speech, the judicial system is too quick to bow before the 1st Amendment, and as a result we end up shielding criminals who misrepresent themselves as journalists and activists. ... Crime is crime. Tabloid journalism uses illegal tactics, and it does not deserve absolute protection from the 1st Amendment.

It’s remarkable how inconvenient the law can be at times, isn’t it? Free speech and freedom of the press are cornerstones of our democracy. We’ve fought wars for them.

But on a practical level, it’s a very thin line between Bagdasarian’s free speech and the guy who doesn’t just spew threats online but actually carries them out.

And freedom of the press can protect journalistic excesses such as those being exposed in Britain.

Personally, the ruling in Bagdasarian’s case makes me uneasy. How many tragic shootings have we had in recent years in which the online warning signs were there but were missed? Won’t this ruling make it even harder to protect the president?

I’m also not a big fan of the National Rifle Assn.'s view of the 2nd Amendment, especially when it means someone like Bagdasarian has access to high-powered weaponry.

Then again, personally, as a journalist, Shapiro’s argument on freedom of the press also makes me uneasy.

Which is why, in the end, I’m sticking with the Constitution. It protects Bagdasarian’s right to say terrible things. It protects his right to own a gun.

And it protects my right to do my job.


Rutten: America’s Murdoch problem

U.S. Supreme Court again rejects most decisions by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

-- Paul Whitefield