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Circuit Reverses Bagdasarian Threat Conviction

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Walter Bagdasarian, a California man accused of violating a federal law that prohibits making threats against a presidential candidate, dodged a .50 caliber conviction bullet using his crack legal team and the foot permanently inserted in his mouth. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Bagdasarian's conviction for threatening to kill or inflict bodily harm upon a major candidate for the office of President.

In October 2008, Bagdasarian, under the pseudonym "californiaradial," posted multiple messages on a Yahoo! Finance message board using racial slurs to refer to then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama, and suggesting that Obama would have "a 50 cal in the head soon." Attempting to redeem his good pseudonym, he later posted to the same message board that he had been drunk when he left the original messages. Another message board participant reported Bagdasarian's comments to the Los Angeles Secret Service field office.

After obtaining a search warrant, Secret Service agents found firearms and .50 caliber ammunition in Bagdasarian's home. They also recovered email messages suggesting that Bagdasarian and his friend should acquire and use a large caliber rifle to shoot Obama's car.

The Ninth Circuit overturned Bagdasarian's conviction because there was not sufficient evidence that a reasonable person who read the postings would have believed that Bagdasarian intended to injure or kill Obama. The court supported this conclusion by noting that only one message board participant reported the messages.

The court found that Bagdasarian's first statement "coupled a racial slur with an assassination forecast during a highly controversial campaign that would ultimately make Obama the country's first black president," and the second statement, though offensive, did not constitute a threat. The court went further in finding that Bagdasarian's statements were protected under the First Amendment because he did not intend for the statements to be interpreted as threats.

Though the protected speech in this case occurred in 2008, the court's decision is interesting due to heightened awareness of threats against political figures following Jared Lee Loughner's assassination attempt against Congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords. One notable distinction between the note Loughner wrote before his assassination attempt and Bagdasarian's posts? Loughner's note included the words, "I planned ahead."

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