Defending Hal Turner's Right To Be A Knucklehead

(AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Earlier this summer, Hal Turner blogged that three federal judges who rejected a National Rifle Association bid to overturn a couple of handgun bans "deserve to be killed." The next day, he followed up with another post including photos of the judges - Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner and William Bauer of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit - as well as a map of the courthouse where they worked and the location of anti-truck bomb barriers. "Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty. A small price to pay to assure freedom for millions," Turner wrote.

Now he is in jail awaiting trial.

Sunday's Washington Post features a must-read piece detailing the Turner case and the attendant First Amendment questions it is going to raise. This is one of those cases guaranteed to test garden-variety lefties and free-speechers. Does the law extend to protecting a right-wing shock jock who declares that a judge ought to be assassinated? Should it? (Even odder, Turner apparently worked as an FBI informant in the past, an affiliation which his attorney says "resulted in numerous lives being saved and sophisticated military hardware from being placed into the black market.")

Martin Garbus, an attorney who has signed on to defend Turner, believes there's a convincing argument to be made that, when all is said and done, Turner still is entitled to First Amendment legal protection. But this is not going to be easy for Garbus, who in the same breath, acknowledges being conflicted.

"Do we have to wait until a murder attempt actually gets underway? Does existing First Amendment law have to be changed, and does there have to be a law that more particularly deals with "true threats"? There are an increasing number of threats that emanate from right-wing radio, television hosts and bloggers, now presenting important First Amendment issues anew. Whichever case goes to the United States Supreme Court will undoubtedly create new law. Nothing has happened to the three judges, although we cannot assume something will not happen. For me, this is a very troublesome and difficult case."

No kidding. The U.S. Attorney, Patrick Fitzgerald in this instance, - he also was the special prosecutor in the Valerie Plame affair - is a hard nose type who has reason to take threats against judges seriously. In 2005, a litigant whose medical malpractice lawsuit was dismissed murdered the husband and mother of U.S. District Judge Joan H. Lefkow, who he also intended to kill.

If you're looking for a legal precedent that might help Turner's chances, Doug Mataconis brings up Brandenburg v. Ohio, a 1969 case where the Supreme Court overturned a Ku Klux Klan speech conviction. Maybe Turner's lawyers will argue that the same legal standard set down by the Supremes should extend to their client. For that matter, they might as well also make the point that the law protects Turner's right to be a knucklehead. "He was just spouting, right?" But is it still hyberbole when you publish a map to the court house where anyone reading his blog could find judges who "deserve to be killed?" Or does that cross a verbal red line that should earn the author a prison term? Your turn to weigh in below.

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    Charles Cooper is an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet. E-mail Charlie.