CHICAGO — Internet radio host Hal Turner disliked how three federal judges rejected the National Rifle Association's attempt to overturn a pair of handgun bans.
"Let me be the first to say this plainly: These Judges deserve to be killed," Turner wrote on his blog June 2, according to the FBI. "Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty. A small price to pay to assure freedom for millions."
The next day, Turner posted photographs of the appellate judges and a map showing the Chicago courthouse where they work, noting the placement of "anti-truck bomb barriers." When an FBI agent appeared at his New Jersey home, Turner said he meant no harm.
He is now behind bars awaiting trial for threatening the judges, deemed by a U.S. magistrate too dangerous to be free.
Turner's case will likely test the limits of political speech at a time when incendiary talk is proliferating on broadcast outlets and the Internet, from the microphones of well-known commentators to the keyboards of anonymous Web writers.
President Barack Obama has been depicted as a Nazi, and slain Kansas abortion doctor George Tiller as "Tiller the killer."
Mark Potok, an editor at the Southern Poverty Law Center who tracks extremists and hate speech, thinks that "political speech has gotten rougher in the last six months."
While federal authorities moved swiftly to stop Turner, scholars note that the line between free speech and criminality is a fine one.
Turner's attorney says prosecutors overreacted.
"He gave an opinion. He did not say go out and kill," defense attorney Michael Orozco said last week. "This is political hyperbole, nothing more. He's a shock jock."
That is not how U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald and his prosecutors see the case. They charged Turner, a blogger admired by white supremacists, with threatening the lives of three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit: Frank Easterbrook, Richard Posner and William Bauer.
Threats against federal judges are taken particularly seriously in Chicago. U.S. District Judge Joan Lefkow's husband and mother were slain in February 2005 by a disgruntled plaintiff. He hid in a closet in Lefkow's home, waiting for the judge to return home, but her husband found him first.
Turner, 47, was first charged in June by Connecticut's Capitol Police with inciting injury after he urged residents to "take up arms" against two state legislators and an ethics official when the lawmakers introduced a bill to give lay members of Roman Catholic churches more control over their parishes' finances.
Later that month, federal authorities filed charges in the Chicago case.
Writing on his blog, which has since been taken down, Turner disputed a June 2 ruling by the three judges, who said a federal district judge had properly dismissed the NRA's lawsuit to overturn handgun bans in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill. It was a Supreme Court matter, said the judges.
Turner called the judges — including Posner and Easterbrook, two of the nation's most prominent conservative jurists — "unpatriotic, deceitful scum." He said the only thing standing in the way of the judges and "the government" achieving ultimate power "is the fact that We The People have guns. Now, that is very much in jeopardy."
On his blog, Turner cited another 7th Circuit ruling against white supremacist Matthew Hale, who once called for Lefkow's assassination. Turner also mentioned the Lefkow murders, although they were unrelated to the Hale case.
"Apparently, the 7th U.S. Circuit court didn't get the hint after those killings. It appears another lesson is needed," Turner wrote. "These judges deserve to be made such an example of as to send a message to the entire judiciary: Obey the Constitution or die."
Turner, who had three semiautomatic handguns, a shotgun and 350 rounds of ammunition in his North Bergen, N.J., home when the FBI arrested him, worked at times as an FBI informant. Although Fitzgerald's office says he provided occasional information on right-wing extremists, Orozco said he was recruited as an "agent provocateur" to get leftists to act in public against him and reveal themselves to the FBI.
First Amendment scholar Martin Redish said much of what Turner wrote is protected by the Constitution. But he said Turner probably crossed a line when he printed information about the judges, their office locations and the courthouse.
"I would give very strong odds on a thousand bucks that once he said that stuff, it takes it out of any kind of hyperbole range," said Redish, a Northwestern University law professor.