Blogger's Case May Test Limits of Political Speech
Sunday, August 16, 2009
CHICAGO -- Internet radio host Hal Turner disliked how three federal judges rejected the National Rifle Association's attempt to overturn a pair of handgun bans.
"Let me be the first to say this plainly: These Judges deserve to be killed," Turner wrote on his blog on June 2, according to the FBI. "Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty. A small price to pay to assure freedom for millions."
The next day, Turner posted photographs of the appellate judges and a map showing the Chicago courthouse where they work, noting the placement of "anti-truck bomb barriers." When an FBI agent appeared at the door of his New Jersey home, Turner said he meant no harm.
He is now behind bars awaiting trial, accused of threatening the judges and deemed by a U.S. magistrate as too dangerous to be free.
Turner's case is likely to test the limits of political speech at a time when incendiary talk is proliferating on broadcast outlets and the Internet, from the microphones of well-known commentators to the keyboards of anonymous netizens. President Obama has been depicted as a Nazi and slain Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller as "Tiller the killer." On guns and abortion, war and torture, taxes and now health care, the commentary feeds off pools of anger that ebb and flow with the zeitgeist.
Mark Potok, an editor at the Southern Poverty Law Center who tracks extremists and hate speech, says he thinks "political speech has gotten rougher in the last six months."
While federal authorities moved swiftly to stop Turner, scholars note that the line between free speech and criminality is a fine one.
Turner's attorney said the prosecutors overreacted.
"He gave an opinion. He did not say go out and kill," defense attorney Michael Orozco said last week after unsuccessfully seeking bail. "This is political hyperbole, nothing more. He's a shock jock."
That is not how U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald and his prosecutors see the case. They charged Turner, a blogger admired by white supremacists, with threatening the lives of three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit: Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner and William Bauer.
Threats against federal judges are taken particularly seriously here: The husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan H. Lefkow were slain in February 2005 by a disgruntled plaintiff. He hid in a closet in Lefkow's home, waiting for the judge to return home, but her husband found him first.
Turner, 47, was first charged in June by Connecticut's Capitol Police with inciting injury after he urged residents to "take up arms" against two state legislators and an ethics official when the lawmakers introduced a bill to give lay members of Roman Catholic churches more control over their parishes' finances.