By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Later that month, federal authorities filed charges in the Chicago case.
Writing on his blog, which has since been taken down, Turner disputed a June 2 ruling by the three judges, who said a federal district judge had properly dismissed the NRA's lawsuit to overturn handgun bans in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill. It was a Supreme Court matter, the judges said.
Turner called the judges -- including Posner and Easterbrook, two of the nation's most prominent conservative jurists -- "unpatriotic, deceitful scum." He said the only thing standing in the way of the judges and "the government" achieving ultimate power "is the fact that We The People have guns. Now, that is very much in jeopardy."
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, Turner said, "The tree of liberty must be replenished from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots." He added his own words: "It is time to replenish the tree!"
Timothy McVeigh, who detonated the Oklahoma City bomb that killed 168 people in 1995, was wearing a T-shirt with Jefferson's words when he was arrested. Last week, a pistol-carrying protester outside an Obama town hall meeting in New Hampshire carried a sign that said, "It is time to water the tree of liberty."
On his blog, Turner cited another 7th Circuit ruling against white supremacist Matthew Hale, who once called for Lefkow's assassination. Turner also mentioned the Lefkow murders, although they were unrelated to the Hale case.
"Apparently, the 7th U.S. Circuit court didn't get the hint after those killings. It appears another lesson is needed," Turner wrote. "These judges deserve to be made such an example of as to send a message to the entire judiciary: Obey the Constitution or die."
Turner, who authorities said had three semiautomatic handguns, a shotgun and 350 rounds of ammunition in his North Bergen, N.J., home when the FBI arrested him, worked at times as an FBI informant. Although Fitzgerald's office says he provided occasional information on right-wing extremists, Orozco said he was recruited as an "agent provocateur" to get leftists to act in public against him and reveal themselves to the FBI.
First Amendment scholar Martin H. Redish said much of what Turner wrote is protected by the Constitution, including his declarations that the judges should be eliminated. But he said Turner probably crossed a line when he printed information about the judges, their office locations and the courthouse.
"I would give very strong odds on a thousand bucks that once he said that stuff, it takes it out of any kind of hyperbole range," said Redish, a professor at Northwestern University Law School. "I just don't see him being protected."
Michael Harrison, a former talk radio host and publisher of Talkers magazine, says examples of incitement to violence are rare. He termed them "random." As he surveys the landscape, he said, "It's easy to take a look at this and say, 'Is this some kind of trend?' No, it isn't.
"I remember plenty of people comparing George W. Bush to a Nazi, to a fascist. Of course there are suggestible people and there are mentally ill people who can react to anything. But what are you going to do -- stop political discussion, stop criticism, stop free speech?"
James W. von Brunn, who killed a guard at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in June, had a history of hateful writings about religious and ethnic minorities and a felony conviction for attacking the Federal Reserve headquarters. But he was not the subject of a criminal investigation before the shooting.
"Law enforcement's challenge every day is to balance the civil liberties of the United States citizen against the need to investigate activities that might lead to criminal conduct," Joseph Persichini Jr., chief of the FBI's Washington field office, told reporters. "No matter how offensive to some, we are keenly aware expressing views is not a crime and the protection afforded under the Constitution cannot be compromised."
Yet all speech is not alike, Potok said. Just as the disruptions directed at Democratic town hall meetings on health care are spawning a debate about the contours of civil discourse, the sometimes bitter skirmishes on the airwaves and the Web raise questions about where such talk can lead.
Some conservative commentators "really are provocateurs," Potok maintained. "They have specialized for years now in pushing the First Amendment to its limits, and they've gotten very good at it."