Illustration by Adam Vieyra
The legal saga of Walter Bagdasarian should serve as a cautionary tale to vocal opponents of Barack Obama’s administration: Don’t drink and chat. And if you do happen to say something violent in an online message board, consider following it with an emoticon.
Blood was boiling in late October 2008 as Election Day neared. The corpse of a bear cub, draped with Obama campaign posters, was left at a university in North Carolina. A mannequin dressed like vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin was hung by a noose in a Halloween display in Los Angeles. And from his home computer in La Mesa, Bagdasarian was causing trouble on a Yahoo! Finance message board in the middle of the night.
“fk the niggar, he will have a 50 cal in the head soon,” Bagdasarian typed after midnight on Oct. 22 in a thread titled “Obama” on the website’s section for the recently bailed-out insurance mega-corporation AIG.
Twenty minutes later, Bagdasarian added: “shoot the nig……the country fkd for another 4 years+, what nig has done ANYTHING right???? Long term??? Never in history except sambos.”
The next morning, Bagdasarian added another post, explaining that he was drunk when he made the statement. Nevertheless, a retired Air Force officer reported the perceived threat, setting the process for Bagdasarian’s prosecution in motion.
“This wasn’t the first threat case [in San Diego],” Greg Meyers, special agent in charge of the Secret Service’s San Diego field office, tells CityBeat. “We investigate a wide variety of threat cases, from somebody just having too much to drink to actual serious investigations where someone has the merit and means.”
Tracking down Bagdasarian’s address through Yahoo! and his Internet service provider took 30 days—and in that time, Obama was elected president. In court, Secret Service agents who visited Bagdasarian described the suspect as “very cooperative” and reported that he immediately accepted responsibility for the drunken messages and acknowledged he knew he had done something wrong.
Four days after their initial home visit, Secret Service agents arrested Bagdasarian and searched his home. They found firearms—including a 50-caliber rifle—and Election Day e-mails to a friend titled “And so it begins” in which Bagdasarian compared what a pistol verses a 50-caliber rifle would do to a “nigga’s car.” (It should be noted that Bagdasarian, a pilot and plane trader, was not found to be affiliated with any racist or extremist group.)
Bagdasarian opted for a trial by a federal judge, rather than a jury, in July 2009. His attorney, Ezekial Cortez, made arguments that touched on everything from the arrest of African-American professor William Gates by a white police officer to the perception that East County residents are a “bunch of rednecks,” ultimately making the point that “the ravings of a drunk… in the wee hours of the morning” certainly should have been investigated, but not prosecuted.
The judge disagreed and convicted Bagdasarian on two counts of threatening a major presidential candidate. He was ordered to pay $700 in fines and spend six months in a halfway house. Bagdasarian is allowed to travel freely across the country, provided he doesn’t come within 1,000 feet of the president.
Though the sentence was relatively light, Bagdasarian filed an appeal in January, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego filed its response on Monday.
The issue is largely one of semantics: Did Bagdasarian’s remarks constitute a “true threat” to Obama? In his brief, Cortez argues that his client’s posts were “racist remarks that included violent language” but were ambiguous enough to be protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Attorney counters that Bagdasarian’s comments are reasonably interpreted as threats considering he owned a 50-caliber weapon and later sent e-mails about using such a weapon on a car.
Neither Cortez nor the U.S. Attorney would provide comment for this story, but legal analysts are split on the issue.
Although he believes the prosecution will likely win the appeal, Fresno-based criminal defense attorney and blogger Rick Horowitz says Bagdasarian should be protected by the First Amendment, since his statements told people to “shoot the nig” and predicted that it would happen—not that he, personally, would shoot the president.
“Bagdasarian’s statements aren’t unequivocal enough for me to feel that he intended a threat to the president,” Horowitz says. “I think Bagdasarian’s a blowhard. I think he was trying to feel important, and he was mouthing off, but I personally find that his statement ‘shoot the nig’ is probably the equivalent to someone saying ‘fuck him.’”
Horowitz says that Internet communication makes it difficult to determine a person’s tone—that’s why people use emoticons to add nuance to otherwise bare language.
“It’s too bad that it didn’t say ‘shoot the nig’ and then have a wink symbol after it,” Horowitz says. “It would’ve been a little bit easier for him to argue that he wasn’t being serious.”
In contrast, Bryan Wildenthal, a constitutional-law professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, says Bagdasarian’s posts clearly were not protected speech.
“Imagine someone called you and said you’d be dead tomorrow,” Wildenthal says.
“A reasonable person would take it as a threat, even if it was vague and drunken rhetoric…. I’m kind of a free-speech fanatic, but, in this particular case, even I would have to say they have a pretty solid prosecution. This guy blundered pretty well over the line with that statement.”
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks extremist and hate groups, the issue of what constitutes a “true threat” has been at the center of several recent high-profile cases—including that of neo-Nazi leader Bill White. Though convicted of several counts of posting threats on his website, White was acquitted of several others—including a threat against a Miami Herald columnist. White had published the writer’s home address online, then told the newspaper, “Frankly, if some loony took the info and killed him, I wouldn’t shed a tear.” The court determined that was not true threat.
“In the past, it’s always been seen that if there wasn’t something imminent,” it wasn’t a true threat, Southern Poverty Law Center Director of Research Heidi Beirich says. “The weird thing about the Internet is you can put true threats pointing to a person—Obama—but you don’t have that immediacy. So, the courts are trying to figure out, when does it go over the line?”
Outside of the courtroom, the rhetoric of the political landscape is becoming even more destructive than in 2008. Following Congress’ passage of the healthcare reform bill, members have received death threats, and their offices have been vandalized, with much of the damage attributed to activists in the conservative Tea Party movement.
Some Republican members of Congress have called for civility, including San Diego County’s Rep. Darrell Issa, who said, via Twitter: “In America you correct junk like Obamacare at [the] ballot-box, not w/ death threats, violence & ugliness.” However, Beirich says some Republicans have been egging on the hotheads—specifically Palin, who recently asked her followers to “RELOAD!” and posted a map on Facebook showing 20 congressional districts in rifle crosshairs.
“You know, this is irresponsible stuff,” Beirich says. “You would expect a lot more from responsible leadership. You just would.”
Locally, Republican Nick Popaditch has become a Tea Party favorite as he attempts to unseat Congressmember Bob Filner. A retired Marine, Popaditch uses aggressive language as he promises to “charge the hill” with the help of members of his “corps.”
Popaditch says that, with so many Americans angry, there’s sure to be a handful with “bad judgment,” but he also argues that violence will only hurt the cause.
“The day that Americans are fighting with other Americans—I mean, c’mon, that’s not who we are,” Popaditch says. “We’re brothers, and we may squabble and we may argue—we may argue very heatedly—but the day we turn to violence against each other, that’s the wrong way to do this stuff. However, I would say also to those elected officials, when 200 million people are screaming at you to not do something, maybe you should be listening to those people.”
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