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What happens when you threaten the president?

There is a slippery slope between free speech and a threat, some would argue.
El Chapo with President Trump's severed head
Comedian George Lopez tweeted this image in February 2016 and the backlash on social media was severe. Photo: Twitter/georgelopez

What happens when you threaten the life of the president of the United States?

For Johnny Depp, we still aren’t sure. For Kathy Griffin, it cost her sweet New Year’s gig with Anderson Cooper. After Ted Nugent invited then-President Obama to “suck on my machine gun,” he scored an invite to the White House to meet President Trump.

But for celebrities and the rest of us plebeians alike, if you make a comment that could be seen as threatening to POTUS, does the United States Secret Service swoop in and take you to a Gitmo-esque hideaway?

Federal law

Threatening the president of the United States is a class E felony. The Secret Service investigates suspected violations and monitors those who have a history of threatening the president.

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Under U.S. law 18 U.S.C. § 879, “whoever knowingly and willfully threatens to kill, kidnap, or inflict bodily harm upon” the president or anyone else protected by the Secret Service can be fined, imprisoned for up to five years or get the package deal of a fine plus jail time.

Immigrants who commit this political offense can be deported.

“Of the individuals who come to the Secret Service's attention as creating a possible danger to one of their protectees, approximately 75 percent are mentally ill,” the U.S. Attorney’s Manual reads. “The Secret Service is particularly concerned that media attention given to cases involving threats against protectees may provoke violent acts from such mentally unstable persons.”

Mental illness or slippery grasp of the English language (for example, a foreign visitor who doesn’t understand the language well) can carry weight when deciding if the threat was made “willfully.”

Free speech or a threat?

The law 18 U.S.C. § 879 is based on the English Treason Act 1351, which made it a crime to "compass or imagine" the death of the king. Past convictions of the U.S. law include posters encouraging the public to “hang President Roosevelt” and comments made about President Woodrow Wilson saying he “ought to be killed. It is a wonder someone has not done it already. If I had an opportunity, I would do it myself" and for calling Wilson “a wooden-headed son of a bitch. I wish Wilson was in hell, and if I had the power I would put him there."

According to the book “The First Amendment: Cases and Theory,” the court ruled that it wasn’t just the danger to Wilson that was considered, but the treasonous nature of the statements that “arouses resentment and concern on the part of patriotic citizens.”

In 1966, an 18-year-old who didn’t want to join the Army said: "They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming. I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.

"They are not going to make me kill my black brothers."

The Supreme Court ruled his comment about Lyndon B. Johnson was “political hyperbole.”

 
 
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