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Fed Appeals Court Says Urging Obama Assassination Is Lawful Online Speech

A divided federal appeals court ruled that a Southern California man was wrongly convicted of making online threats against President Barack Obama two weeks before he was voted into office. The man's messages, while ruled legal, are certainly provocative. He posted the following comments online:

"Re: Obama fk the nig*ar, he will have a 50 cal in the head soon" and "Shoot the n*g country fkd for another 4 years+, what n*g has done ANYTHING right???? long term???? never in history, except sambos."

Below, watch a 2009 KNSD-TV clip that offers additional details:

These short notes were posted on the Yahoo! Finance web site by Walter Bagdasarian early in the morning on October 22, 2008. Officials became aware of these messages when another board member (a retired Air Force officer) tipped them off. It was then that the Secret Service was able to trace the messages to Bagdasarian. Wired has more:

Bagdasarian was found guilty of two counts of criminal threats to a presidential candidate. The La Mesa man was sentenced to two months in a halfway house. He appealed.

In hearing the appeal, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco did, indeed, find his comments "particularly repugnant," as they directly encouraged others to engage in violence. That said, the judges found that neither of the comments fit the "threat statutes" under which the man was convicted.

While the government argued that Bagdasarian had a .50-caliber gun at home (the same model he mentioned in his online post), no one reading the messages knew, for sure, that he had a gun. Thus, there was insufficient evidence that either of his statements were real threats. Additionally, there was no evidence that a reasonable person would definitely construe his comments as legitimate threats.

"The evidence is not sufficient to support a conclusion that a reasonable person who read the postings within or without the relevant context would have understood either to mean that Bagdasarian threatened to injure or kill the presidential candidate," Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the majority.

Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw dissented, noting that Bagsasarian owned a .50 caliber gun.

"That Mr. Bagdasarian later made a public apology does not detract from his intent at the time; his intent to threaten harm to candidate Obama generated fear for the candidate's safety and mobilized the Secret Service, which tracked Mr. Bagdasarian down," Wardlaw wrote. "Mr. Bagdasarian did not come forward; the Secret Service had to locate him."

Bagsasarian, who claims he had been drinking when he initially wrote the posts, has surely learned his lesson.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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