The Secret Service tends to investigate people for making comments about presidents even when the comment cannot rationally be described as a true threat. [edit: link corrected.] They look into conditional or hypothetical or fantastical threats, they look into threats by people incarcerated in jails and mental institutions, they look into satire and hyperbole and moronic bluster. As an AUSA, I once worked with a Secret Service agent who had been on that detail. She said that maybe 5% of what they looked into sounded anything like a true threat from the start, and of those 5% of the cases, 75% of the time the person reporting it described it wrong.
So long as the Secret Service does not use methods that violate the Fourth Amendment, I don't have a huge problem with that. Nearly 10% of our presidents have been shot to death (and not, as P.J. O'Rourke would say, after due process of law), and more than another 10% have experienced very close calls. Presidents cause the cauldron of nuttiness to bubble. So it's entirely rational for the Secret Service to look into all sorts of things — including things that are quite possibly hyperbole — to see if there's anything of substance there. Quite often they follow tips that are stupidly or maliciously wrong, and quite often they wind up looking kind of dumb as a result. So long as they are being even-handed (i.e. investigating likely hyperbole from crazy people and general cranks as well as by critics of a particular administration), so long as they confine themselves to actions that do not implicate the Fourth Amendment (like asking questions, asking for consent, and reviewing public records), and so long as they don't use notably coercive tactics, I don't have a problem with it. They're wearing out their shoes on 99% of the cases to make it more likely they will catch — or deter — the 1% that represents a genuine threat.
I do have a problem with other people loudly wetting themselves over things that are not true threats, and using them as a rallying cry for censorship crusades.
Case in point: some asshole used a new Facebook poll application, created by a private party, to make a poll asking if President Obama "should be killed." This was obnoxious and worthy of contempt, but it was not, under Watts, anything resembling a true threat. A blogger freaked, reported it to the Secret Service, the Secret Service talked to Facebook, and Facebook suspended the application, even though the poll itself had already been taken down, "while the inappropriate content could be removed by the developer and until such time as the developer institutes better procedures to monitor their user-generated conten."
Facebook is a private entity, and can delete whatever posts and apps it likes. But the sentiment that expressive internet applications should be shut down if users can post obnoxious or hateful things on them is troublesome. So is the sentiment that the developers and operators of internet applications ought to be responsible for policing how users use them, and be responsible for deleting content that is, by some standard or other, "offensive." Fortunately there are strong legal norms establishing that developers have no obligation to do so. That's why only the most hysterical or ignorant people would be calling the Secret Service demanding that they shut down MySpace or Blogger or WordPress until someone starts policing them for poorly-spelled anti-Obama hateful screeds. But if big-league private companies like Facebook start imposing these as a norm on their private networks — if they start disabling applications that have the capacity to be used for obnoxious expression, and demanding that app developers police content by some standard or other — it can't help but chill and deter app development. That would be unfortunate. It would also be unfortunate if people started using dishonest and hysterical reports to the Secret Service as a weapon to deter and even shut down hyperbole — even hateful hyperbole by assholes.
The blogger that started this — "GottaLaff," at the The Political Carnival — is luxuriating in the reflected glow of petty fame from having reported an asshole on Facebook to the Secret Service. I find the triumphalism in the blog posts and in the comments over getting the application shut down because it didn't magically stop anti-Obama extremist rhetoric to be more than a little odd and disturbing — in some ways, more odd and disturbing than some anonymous and petty asshole starting a troll poll. Take this post, for example:
If we stopped ONE person from inciting hate or violence, then we've done our jobs.
Here's the thing, Buttercup: not all incitement of violence is illegal. Take, for example, incitement that does not present a clear and present danger of imminent lawless action — hyperbole by idiots on the internet, for example. Nor is most incitement of hate illegal. Do you really think it's your "job" to go about "stopping" people from hateful speech, like some sort of self-important internet Batman carrying a belt full of ball-gags?
While we are on the subject of inciting hate and violence, let's take a look at GottaLaff's tone while discussing this story:
Okay, that's it, I've had it.
The hate speech, the threats have gotten completely out of hand. And those who have incited viewers and listeners– and you know who you are Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, etc.– are responsible for a good part of this horrific activity.
No, it is not "grassroots", not even close. It is a sick, terrifying, dangerous movement toward violence and the worst kind of civil unrest.
The same "party leaders" who get their rocks off by pretending to be macho and exerting their windbaggy, wrongheaded power will one day come to realize that killing is real, not just a word on a Facebook poll, and it's already happened (Dr. Tiller, the census "fed"), and it is final. Real and final.
The only things long and hard about these blowhards (no pun) are their mics. You get rid of those, and these chest-thumping cretins are nothing more than overgrown, uncontrollable, whiny, screeching little toddlers trying to clomp around in grown-up shoes, shoes that they'll never be able to fill. They'll never be men. They are wounded, damaged animals.
Yeah, nothing hate-inciting about that. I don't admire or agree with a single person this blogger just condemned. I think that the world would be a more pleasant place if most of them were turned into mulch to fertilize my lawn. But how is that less of an incitement to hate than some anonymous twit's hyperbolic poll? Because it makes dick-size jokes instead of a shock-the-shockable but clearly not true-threat question about killing a politician? Do you think GottaLaff recognizes, or has the capacity to recognize, the irony?
GottaLaff goes on:
Time to tame them. And time to demand that they tame their deranged, diseased herd of blind followers.
Ooookay. Pardon me, I'm just going to move over here and wipe some of the flecks of spittle off of my jacket.
Look, I'm all in favor of "taming" morons on the Right (and the Left). But my chosen whip and chair are fact-checking, criticism, and merciless ridicule. I'm not so much in favor of siccing the Secret Service on them, nor of trying to persuade private entities (like Facebook, for instance) to delete their posts or apps. Response speech is the right remedy. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. GottaLaff's gloating and celebrations are, frankly, creepy — as are the aspirations of all eager censors. Read the posts — read the comments — and decide for yourself. Ask yourself — do you believe, even for a second, that GottaLaff and her faithful commenters would like to stop at getting a "should the President be killed" poll pulled? In answering that question, consider how GottaLaff and her commenters deal with communications from the guy who wrote the poll app — who says he is an Obama voter. Careful with the comments on that last link, please — abjectly stupid might be catching.
Edited to add: I used twitter to notify GottaLaff of this post, so she could respond if she saw fit. Her response, on twitter: "Hey guys! A troll! I'm the topic." The twitter was posted at a speech that suggests that GottaLaff is either an extraordinarily fast reader, or didn't actually read the post. Note that GottaLaff identifies the two most important things about the post to her: "OOOO IT'S ALL ABOUT ME" and "disagrees with me, therefore a troll." QED with regard to this post.
Second edit: GottaLaff is offended. There's an almost touching level of naivete and self-congratulation in her posts about her interactions with the Secret Service. The Secret Service said to her — basically — "hey, thanks." They blew some nice nice at her for reporting some guy on the internet for making a "should the President be killed" post. GottaLaff is spinning this as the Secret Service being EXTREMELY grateful, like she's going to have her picture up at the local field office next week and the SSA is going to send her an FTD "special friend" bouquet. Here's the thing: that's what the Secret Service says to you. They don't say "Look, that's almost certainly not a true threat, and you really need to calm down a notch or two, but thanks, I guess." They treat you nicely. People with judgment tend to recognize it for what it is.
Third Edit: Dumb Ken linked the wrong Watts v. United states. Link fixed above.
Fifth Edit: Of course faction A is saying "this is an unprecedented attack on a President," and Faction B is saying "bullshit, your side did this all the time in the last administration." The fact that similar stuff was done to Bush does not make this poll any less contemptible. However, Faction B seems to have one thing right: there were already Facebook groups asking if President Bush should be killed:
Several groups on Facebook are dedicated to the demise of George W. Bush. Most of the dozen or so groups dedicated to killing him however, have only a few followers, but some of them have become quite popular.
For example there is a group named "We all Want To Kill George Bush" with 429 members, and LETS KILL BUSH WITH SHOES has 484 members.
Once again, for the reading-impaired, that does not make the "should we kill Obama" asshole any less of an asshole. It does, however, suggest that (1) the OUTRAGE over this is largely political, or (2) people have a better sense of what is, or is not, a "true threat" when it is not their favored politician being treated badly.
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