A California man's call to "shoot" President Obama was ruled as legal and protected speech this week, as a federal court overturned his conviction in connection with the 2008 threats.
Under U.S. law, it is illegal to threaten harm against a major presidential candidate. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Walter Bagdasarian's threats did not cross the legal line because he didn't appear to have the "intent" to carry them out.
While calling the defendant an "especially unpleasant fellow," the court found that the two comments for which he was convicted could not be deemed serious.
"These statements are particularly repugnant because they directly encourage violence. We nevertheless hold that neither of them constitutes an offense within the meaning of the threat statute," the court wrote in its opinion.
The comments were posted on a Yahoo! Finance message board in October 2008, when it looked increasingly likely Obama was poised to win the presidential election. Shortly after midnight, Bagdasarian joined the discussion. He called Obama a "n-----" and said "he will have a 50 cal in the head soon." He posted another comment 20 minutes later that said "shoot the n--."
Somebody reported his statements to authorities and within a month Secret Service agents showed up at his house. He admitted to posting the comments and also informed the agents he had weapons in his house, according to court documents. After obtaining a search warrant, agents found six firearms as well as Election Day emails containing threatening language on his hard drive.
The three-judge panel reviewing Bagdasarian's conviction from a lower court was not unanimous in overturning the verdict. Judge Kim Wardlaw, who dissented in part from the majority ruling, argued that Bagdasarian's access to weapons showed he "could implement the threat." Wardlaw wrote that given the facts, he showed a "specific intent" to threaten Obama.
However, the majority wrote that his possession of firearms did not speak to his intent.
The defendant also wrote on the message board, and later said at trial, that he had been drinking a lot and was intoxicated when he made the offending comments.