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Friday, August 13, 2010

Hate Blogger Hal Turner Convicted

Now, merely saying that someone else deserves to suffer harm may expose the speaker to criminal prosecution.

A highly-controversial New Jersey internet blogger and radio host, Harold Turner (aka Hal Turner) was convicted this afternoon in Brooklyn federal court on one charge of threatening three federal judges, writing that these judges (including Judge Richard Posner) "deserved to be killed" for ruling in favor of a handgun ban.

Turner's first two trials ended with hung juries (no unanimous verdict) after he used privately-paid counsel (Newark's Michael Orozco). This time, as his funds ran out and after he filed for bankruptcy, he used the chief federal public defender in Brooklyn. Although some may be tempted to use this fact as the reason for his conviction -- and I report on this fact because it is of interest to readers -- I do not believe it was a factor.

The legal issue from this observer's standpoint is how to draw a bright line on free speech and opinion advocacy. A lot of genuine free speech and worthy opinion will be chilled if the federal government can convince juries that emotional or even inflammatory speech constitutes criminal harassment or unlawful provocations of violence. Congress needs to act to give Americans guidance on how to measure their desired speech against this verdict. The Obama Justice Department is also able to provide its guidance, as it is charged with evaluating such speech.

Naturally this case was brought because free speech proponents have difficulty defending the speaker and the speech on their merits. An unpopular or reprehensible defendant makes a great target. Readers should note that totalitarian regimes are well aware of this. Let us hope that we have not moved closer to the day when political opposition is a crime (although former Alabama governor Don Siegelman might argue that has already happened).

Also worthy of noting: The FBI had been paying Turner for years to say various inflammatory or outright racist statements, purportedly to incite and thus get violent extremist elements to reveal themselves and take the substantial step, the "overt act," needed to support a criminal charge. Why the federal government was paying this guy (of all people) -- or others, of which you can be sure -- in the first place, for any reason, should be worthy of examination by Congress.

Eric Dixon is a New York lawyer.

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