A California man, previously found guilty of threatening to kill or do bodily harm to a major Presidential candidate in comments on an Internet message board, had his conviction overturned by a Federal appeals court Tuesday. The court found that the man’s comments, which included several racist slurs and a demand for someone to “shoot” then-Presidential candidate Barack Obama, were protected under the First Amendment as free speech.
“Walter Bagdasarian was found guilty two years ago of making threats against a major presidential candidate in comments he posted on a Yahoo.com financial website after 1 a.m. on Oct. 22, 2008, as Obama’s impending victory in the race for the White House was becoming apparent. Bagdasarian told investigators he was drunk at the time,” read an article for the Los Angeles Times.
“In order to affirm a conviction under any threat statute that criminalizes pure speech, a court must find sufficient evidence that the speech at issue constitutes a ‘true threat,’” the court’s decision read. “Neither one of Bagdasarian’s statements constituted a ‘threat’ in the ordinary meaning of the word as an expression of an intention to inflict injury on another… The threat statute does not criminalize predictions or exhortations to others to injure or kill the president.”
The court described the defendant as “an especially unpleasant fellow,” and his statements as “alarming and dangerous.” However, the court found 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.”