The United States Secret Service has interviewed a Republican candidate for the Florida House of Representatives after he made a comment on Twitter about the need for President Obama to be tried and hanged for his crimes. It was a uniquely stupid tweet but the controversy again raises the question of the federal law making threatening language against the President a crime. For years, elementary students, journalists, and even cartoonists have found themselves being confronted by Secret Service over comments or pictures deemed threatening. The effort is chilling for the first amendment and inimical to political speech.
Take the statement of Joshua Black, who stated “I’m past impeachment. It’s time to arrest and hang him high.”
Black specifically stated that Obama should be arrested and then hanged for crimes. Yet, that was enough to get an ominous visit from the Secret Service. Notably, there is no such concern when former high-ranking intelligence officials call for Edward Snowden to be hanged.
Brown, 31, is clearly unhinged in making such a statement. He is already being denounced for the tweet. However, my concern is with the continued action of the Secret Service in interviewing critics of this and past presidents. These visits bring an obvious threat to critics that any statement deemed threatening could result in their arrest.
Black later responded to the controversy and noted that no one seems to have a problem with citizens being vaporized by Obama without a trial or even criminal charge:
The Secret Service continues to confront anyone who expresses hurtful thoughts about a president, including common expressions like wishing a president would just die or be killed. These field interviews are conducted under 18 U.S.C. § 871:
(a) Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits for conveyance in the mail or for a delivery from any post office or by any letter carrier any letter, paper, writing, print, missive, or document containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States, the President-elect, the Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President of the United States, or the Vice President-elect, or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President, President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
The position of the Secret Service is that any drawing or comments can theoretically be a “threat” and has to be investigated. The result is that children are pulled out of classes or cartoonists are asked to explain a piece depicting a president in a bull eye image. It is the same lack of judgment or discretion that we have seen with zero tolerance rules in schools. However, this practice has a direct chilling effect on political speech.
As for Black, voters will judge his candidacy by such statements. Ironically, on his website, he offers himself as a new approach to reaching voters:
Republicans have a serious communication problem. Everything we say sounds like spears. We find ways to energize our core supporters, the people who will always only ever vote Republican, but we have a hard time explaining to anyone else why they should listen to our solutions.
Of course, this was a rope not a spear.