CHICAGO – Internet radio host Hal Turner disliked how three federal judges rejected the National Rifle Association’s attempt to overturn a pair of handgun bans.
“Let me be the first to say this plainly: These Judges deserve to be killed,” Turner wrote on his blog June 2, according to the FBI. “Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty. A small price to pay to assure freedom for millions.”
The next day, Turner posted photographs of the appellate judges and a map showing the Chicago courthouse where they work, noting the placement of “anti-truck bomb barriers.” When an FBI agent appeared at the door of his New Jersey home, Turner said he meant no harm.
He is now behind bars awaiting trial for threatening the judges, deemed by a U.S. magistrate as too dangerous to be free.
Turner’s case will likely test the limits of political speech at a time when incendiary talk is proliferating on broadcast outlets and the Internet, from the microphones of well-known commentators to the keyboards of anonymous webizens. President Barack Obama has been depicted as a Nazi and slain Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller as “Tiller the killer.” On guns and abortion, war and torture, taxes and now health care, the commentary feeds off pools of anger that ebb and flow with the zeitgeist.
Mark Potok, an editor at the Southern Poverty Law Center who tracks extremists and hate speech, thinks that “political speech has gotten rougher in the last six months.”
While federal authorities moved swiftly to stop Turner, scholars note that the line between free speech and criminality is a fine one.
Turner’s attorney says prosecutors overreacted.
“He gave an opinion. He did not say go out and kill,” defense attorney Michael Orozco said last week after unsuccessfully seeking bail. “This is political hyperbole, nothing more. He’s a shock jock.”
That is not how U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and his prosecutors see the case. They charged Turner, a blogger admired by white supremacists, with threatening the lives of three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit: Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner and William Bauer.
Writing on his blog, which has since been taken down, Turner disputed a June 2 ruling by the three judges, who said a federal district judge had properly dismissed the NRA’s lawsuit to overturn handgun bans in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill. It was a Supreme Court matter, said the judges.
Turner called the judges – including Posner and Easterbrook, two of the nation’s most prominent conservative jurists – “unpatriotic, deceitful scum.” He said the only thing standing in the way of the judges and “the government” achieving ultimate power “is the fact that We The People have guns. Now, that is very much in jeopardy.”
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, Turner said, “The tree of liberty must be replenished from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots.” He added his own words: “It is time to replenish the tree!”
Turner, 47, who had three semiautomatic handguns, a shotgun and 350 rounds of ammunition in his North Bergen, N.J., home when the FBI arrested him, worked at times as an FBI informant. Although Fitzgerald’s office says he provided occasional information on right-wing extremists, Orozco said he was recruited as an “agent provocateur” to get leftists to act in public against him and reveal themselves to the FBI.
First Amendment scholar Martin Redish said much of what Turner wrote is protected by the Constitution, including his declarations that the judges should be eliminated. But he said Turner probably crossed a line when he printed information about the judges, their office locations and the courthouse.
“I would give very strong odds on a thousand bucks that once he said that stuff, it takes it out of any kind of hyperbole range,” said Redish, a professor at Northwestern University Law School. “I just don’t see him being protected.”