For years, calling for the assassination of a sitting president has been considered a criminal act. Now, such is not the case and has been interpreted by a federal court as a form of “free speech.” In California, a La Mesa man posted racial and derogatory epithets in an Internet chat room that called for people to “shoot” Barack Obama.

Recently, a federal appeals court ruled that such behavior in an Internet chat room was considered to be a form of constitutionally protected free speech. As a result, the man had his criminal conviction overturned.

Two years ago, Walter Bagdasarian was found guilty of making threats against a major presidential candidate in comments he posted on a Yahoo.com financial on Oct. 22, 2008.

The majority opinion, written by Judge Stephen Reinhardt, read: “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. Judge Reinhardt was joined in the 2-to-1 decision by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski. Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw dissented.

Although the divided panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stated that Bagdasarian’s comments were “particularly repugnant,” they went on to add that saying Obama “will have a 50 cal in the head soon” and a call to “shoot the [racial slur]” weren’t violations of the law under which he was convicted since the statute doesn’t criminalize “predictions or exhortations to others to injure or kill the president.” –torrance t. stephens, ph.d.

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