A San Diego-area man who used the "N-word" to describe Barack Obama and said that he "will have a 50 cal in the head soon" was guilty of despicable conduct. What he wasn't guilty of, a federal appeals court has ruled, was the crime of threatening a then-presidential candidate. Not for the first time, a loathsome individual has benefited from a robust — and correct — interpretation of the 1st Amendment.
It's hard to read the Internet postings of Walter Bagdasarian without cringing. In addition to the comments above, Bagdasarian wrote on a message board: "Shoot the nig." But the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that none of these statements constituted a threat to kill a presidential candidate. Judge Stephen Reinhardt said Bagdasarian's conviction had to be invalidated whether the court used an objective standard (Would a reasonable person consider the statements a threat?) or a subjective one (whether Bagdasarian intended his ravings as a threat).
That's the correct conclusion. The law under which Bagdasarian was convicted makes it a crime to "knowingly and willfully threaten to kill, kidnap or inflict bodily harm upon … a major candidate for the office of president or vice president, or a member of the immediate family of such candidate." Even Bagdasarian's most outrageous posting — the one in which he exhorted his readers to shoot Obama — failed to satisfy that definition.