April 28, 2005
There Oughtn't Be a Law
April 28, 2005 02:19 AM
WorldNetDaily and the Drudge Report are questionable legal authority, so I thought I'd ask De Novo readers about a claim made in both outlets' stories regarding a joke about shooting President Bush for his Social Security policy. 'A government source told Drudge, "Even joking about shooting the president is a crime, let alone doing it on national radio ... we are taking this very seriously."'
While obviously the Secret Service needs to investigate everyone who makes a threat against the president, no matter how absurd and unlikely to come to violent fruition, I was surprised that speech clearly categorizable as a joke -- even a very poor one -- could be considered a crime. Has anyone ever been arrested, charged or prosecuted for it? Watts v. United States limited 18 USCS § 871 to "true threats," placing the burden of proof on the prosecution to show that the remark was not made in jest.
UPDATE: Note to self -- always check Volokh first.
Eugene Volokh had a good post about this yesterday: http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2005_04_24-2005_04_30.shtml#1114632412
Yes, always check Volokh. However, I thought I'd add that there was an incident at my UG where a student was arrested and charged because of a similar joke on his website. I'm not sure how it turned out, but I do recall the secret service coming on campus to get him.
I imagine the procedure goes such that people get arrested and charged under 18 USCS § 871, but the prosecutor realizes that she cannot prove the joke to have been a true threat and the case is dropped.
It is not unusual for people who do engage in violence to use verbal signals first. Often the threats are purposely ambiguous.
Joking can be a form of verbal harassment, deliberately creating a hostile environment.
I do not regard the anonymous source's comment to drudge as an official expression of government policy.