Jamie York is a producer for On the Media.
The Limits of Free-Speech Online
Friday, July 22, 2011 - 01:40 PM
On Tuesday a federal appeals court reached an interesting and important decision about free speech online. Split 2-1, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a racist and violent online screed threatening then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008 was ‘repugnant’ but not criminal.
The decision, in favor of Walter Bagdasarian, overturned an earlier conviction on two felony counts of threatening a major presidential candidate. The court ruled that Bagdasarian’s posts to a Yahoo Finance message board predicting that Obama would be shot in the head were threats that no ‘reasonable person’ could have taken seriously and that they were protected as free speech. They further explained that prosecutors had failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Bagdasarian ‘had the subjective intent to threaten a presidential candidate.’ Bagdasarian has said that he was drunk when he made the posts. Law enforcement found Bagdasarian to have the same caliber firearm referenced in his threat to shoot Obama. But the court was clear that “When our law punishes words, we must examine the surrounding circumstances to discern the significance of those words' utterance, but must not distort or embellish their plain meaning so that the law may reach them.”
According to the Los Angeles Times, this case doesn’t resolve the issue, “Bagdasarian’s isn’t the only case wrestling with where the line is between threat speech and action. The 9th Circuit recently heard testimony in another case involving an Arizona man's threats to shoot Super Bowl spectators in Phoenix eight years ago that were never carried out. The appeals court has yet to rule on whether the threat itself was a crime, even though it wasn't committed.”
We’ll keep you updated on these cases that are defining the limits of free-expression on the internet.