Case against blogger may test limits of free speech

EXTREME NET Hal Turner of North Bergen, N.J., has been charged with threatening the lives of three federal judges who ruled against the NRA. EXTREME NET
Hal Turner of North Bergen, N.J., has been charged with threatening the lives of three federal judges who ruled against the NRA.
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post / August 16, 2009

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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 US magistrate as too dangerous to be free.

Turner’s case will probably 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 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 US 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 Appeals Court for the 7th Circuit: Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner, and William Bauer.

Threats against federal judges are taken particularly seriously here; US District Judge Joan Lefkow’s husband and mother were slain in February 2005 by a disgruntled plaintiff.

Turner, 47, was first charged in June by Connecticut’s Capitol Police with inciting injury, after he urged residents to “take up arms’’ against two state legislators and an ethics official when the lawmakers introduced a bill to give lay members of Roman Catholic churches more control over their parishes’ finances.

Later that month, federal authorities filed charges in the Chicago case.

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.