Where free speech ends and threats begin

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Even the most enthusiastic supporter of free speech understands why you cannot–to use a worn-out, but still good example–shout “fire!” in a crowded theater. Our courts and our law enforcement agencies have long disagreed on when a threat is dangerous and when it is “just a threat.” Until we had stalker laws, many citizens were told that nothing could be done about the people who threatened them, and in some communities, stalker laws are still ignored by law enforcement.

People who have used the Internet to make threats against others have also found that their threats are often protected by First Amendment principles. Reasonable people can disagree over the First Amendment, but surely there are some circumstances in which threats can be seen as nothing but dangerous.

It seems to me (and actually, I am one of those people who believes we should take all threats seriously) that most people would take seriously a threat that is both significant in meaning and specific in content. If it were repeated over time, that would, I believe, make it even more potent. Which brings me to radio host Hal Turner, who is already well known for his verbal attacks and threats on African Americans, Jews and illegal immigrants.

Prior to the November elections, Turner stated that he might have to assassinate some members of Congress if the “wrong” people were elected. He recently posted on his website the following:

ANY MEMBER OF CONGRESS WHO INTRODUCES, CO-SPONSORS OR VOTES IN FAVOR OF ANY SUCH AMNESTY [for illegal immigrants] WILL BE DECLARED A DOMESTIC ENEMY AND WILL BE CONSIDERED A LEGITIMATE TARGET FOR ASSASSINATION

Turner is also running this disclaimer on his website: “Due to recent Denial of Service Attacks and Bandwidth Leeching Fraud, most of the content on this site was intentionally removed by Hal Turner.”

The radio host says that by stating that we (whoever “we” are) “may” have to kill the Congresspeople, he is just commenting, as opposed to advocating (saying we “will” have to kill them). The first, he says, is an opinion, and the second is a threat. But this is what Turner said on the air recently:

This seems to be “it,” folks. I’m going to do what I have to do to protect my nation from its government. I know where all of my New Jersey Congressmen and Senators live. Do you know where yours live? If not, you better find out before January so you can scope out their neighborhoods and prepare yourselves.

Those of you who, for years, have said you’re “gonna do this” or “gonna do that” when the time comes; are about to face ugly reality. In January, “the time” will come. In January the entire world will find out if you’re real or just a bigmouth coward.

If Turner can construe that as “commentary” rather than “threat,” I would certainly like to hear how. The FBI, for its part, will not (as opposed to “may not”) confirm whether Turner’s remarks are the subject of an investigation.

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2020 demands.

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