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United States of America v. Walter Edward Bagdasarian

July 19, 2011


Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of California Marilyn L. Huff, District Judge, Presiding D.C. No. 3:09-CR-00083-H-1

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Reinhardt, Circuit Judge:



Argued and Submitted August 5, 2010-Pasadena, California

Before: Alex Kozinski, Chief Judge, Stephen Reinhardt and Kim McLane Wardlaw, Circuit Judges.

Opinion by Judge Reinhardt;

Partial Concurrence and Partial Dissent by Judge Wardlaw


The election of our first black President produced a campaign with vitriolic personal attacks and, ultimately, sentiments of national pride and good will. The latter was short-lived on the part of some, politicians and non-politicians alike, and the vitriol continued as President Obama's term of office commenced. To those familiar with American political history, none of this should have come as a surprise. Although

Justice Scalia writes that "[o]bservers of the past few national elections have expressed concern about the increase of character assassination . . . engaged in by political candidates and their supporters,"*fn1 mudslinging has long been a staple of U.S. presidential elections. Justice Scalia, though analyzing a current issue, uncharacteristically overlooked the experience of our Founding Fathers. In the country's first contested presidential election of 1800, supporters of Thomas Jefferson claimed that incumbent John Adams wanted to marry off his son to the daughter of King George III to create an American dynasty under British rule; Adams supporters called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father."*fn2 Abraham Lincoln was derided as an ape, ghoul, lunatic, and savage,*fn3 while Andrew Jackson was accused of adultery and murder,*fn4 and opponents of Grover Cleveland chanted slogans that he had fathered a child out-of-wedlock.*fn5 Still, the 2008 presidential election was unique in the combination of racial, religious, and ethnic bias that contributed to the extreme enmity expressed at various points during the campaign.*fn6 Much of this bias was misinformed because although the presidential candidate was indeed black, he was neither, as some insisted, Muslim nor foreign born.*fn7

Here, we review a district court's conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 879(a)(3), which makes it a felony to threaten to kill or do bodily harm to a major presidential candidate. The defendant Walter Bagdasarian, an especially unpleasant fellow, was found guilty on two counts of making the following statements on an online message board two weeks before the presidential election: (1) "Re: Obama fk the niggar, he will have a 50 cal in the head soon" and (2) "shoot the nig."*fn8

These statements are particularly repugnant because they directly encourage violence.*fn9 We nevertheless hold that neither of them constitutes an offense within the meaning of the threat statute under which Bagdasarian was convicted.

I. Background

On October 22, 2008, when Barack Obama's election was looking more and more likely, Bagdasarian, under the user-name "californiaradial," joined a "Yahoo! Finance - American International Group" message board, on which members of the public posted messages concerning financial matters, AIG, and other topics. At 1:15 am on the day that he joined, Bagdasarian posted the following statement on the message board: "Re: Obama fk the niggar, he will have a 50 cal in the head soon." About twenty minutes later, he posted another statement on the same message board: "shoot the nig country fkd for another 4 years, what nig has done ANYTHING right???? long term???? never in history, except sambos." Bagdasarian also posted statements on the same message board that he had been extremely intoxicated at the time that he made the two earlier statements.*fn10 He repeated at trial that he had been drinking heavily on October 22. Another participant on the message board, John Base, a retired Air Force officer, reported Bagdasarian's second statement regarding Obama to the Los Angeles Field Office of the United States Secret Service that same morning. Base told the Secret Service that an individual identified by the username "californiaradial" had made alarming statements directed at the presidential candidate. He also provided the Secret Service with the Internet address link to the "shoot the nig" message board posting.

A Secret Service agent located this posting and the "Obama fk the niggar" posting on the Yahoo! message board, and, a week later, Yahoo! provided the Secret Service with subscriber information for, registered in La Mesa, California. Yahoo! also provided the Secret Service with the Internet Protocol history for the "californiaradial" email account, which Service agents used to identify the IP address from which the "shoot the nig" and "Obama fk the niggar" statements were posted. This IP address led the Service agents to Bagdasarian's home in La Mesa.

A month after the two statements for which Bagdasarian was indicted were posted on the AIG message board, two agents visited and interviewed him and he admitted to posting the statements from his home computer. When asked, he also told the agents that he had weapons in his home. The agents found one weapon on a nearby shelf; Bagdasarian said he had other weapons in addition. Four days later, agents executed a federal search warrant at Bagdasarian's home and found six firearms, including a Remington model 700ML .50 caliber muzzle-loading rifle, as well as .50 caliber ammunition.

The agents also searched the hard drive of Bagdasarian's home computer and recovered an email sent on Election Day with the subject, "Re: And so it begins." The email's text stated, "Pistol??? Dude, Josh needs to get us one of these, just shoot the nigga's car and POOF!" The email provided a link to a webpage advertising a large caliber rifle. Another email that Bagdasarian sent the same day with the same subject heading stated, "Pistol . . . plink plink plink Now when you use a 50 cal on a nigga car you get this." It included a link to a video of a propane tank, a pile of debris, and two junked cars being blown up. These email messages would appear to confirm the malevolent nature of the previous statements as well as Bagdasarian's own malignant nature. Unlike in the case of his first two message board statements two weeks earlier, this time he did not attempt to excuse his inexcusable conduct on the ground that he was intoxicated.

After the Secret Service filed a criminal complaint against Bagdasarian for the posting the "shoot the nig" and "Obama fk the niggar" statements, the Government filed the superseding indictment at issue here, charging Bagdasarian in two counts under 18 U.S.C. § 879(a)(3) with threatening to kill and inflict bodily harm upon a major candidate for the office of president of the United States. Bagdasarian waived his right to a jury trial. His case was tried before a district judge upon the foregoing stipulated facts. The district court found Bagdasarian guilty on both counts. He appeals.

II. Analysis

[1] The federal statute under which Bagdasarian was indicted, 18 U.S.C. § 879(a)(3), makes it a crime to "knowingly and willfully threaten[ ] to kill, kidnap, or inflict bodily harm upon . . . a major candidate for the office of President or Vice President, or a member of the immediate family of such candidate." A statute like § 879, "which makes criminal a form of pure speech, must be interpreted with the commands of the First Amendment clearly in mind." Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705, 707 (1969). Although the State cannot criminalize constitutionally protected speech, the First Amendment does not immunize "true threats." Id. at 708. The Court held in Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003), that under the First Amendment the State can punish threatening expression, but only if the "speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals." Id. at 359. It is therefore not sufficient that objective observers would reasonably perceive such speech as a threat of injury or death.

[2] Because of comments made in some of our cases, we begin by clearing up the perceived confusion as to whether a subjective or objective analysis is required when examining whether a threat is criminal under various threat statutes and the First Amendment.*fn11 Such a choice reflects a false dichotomy. The issue is actually whether, as to a threat prosecuted under a particular threat statute, only a subjective analysis need be applied or whether both a subjective and an objective analysis is required. Whether we have held that a threat under a particular statute must be examined under an objective standard, as with 18 U.S.C. § 871(a),*fn12 which makes it unlawful to threaten the President, or whether we have held that the statute requires the application of both an objective and subjective standard, as with 18 U.S.C. § 879(a)(3),*fn13 the provision that we consider here, our analysis in its most important respect is ultimately the same: In order to affirm a conviction under any threat statute that criminalizes pure speech, we must find sufficient evidence that the speech at issue constitutes a "true threat," as defined in Black. Because the true threat requirement is imposed by the Constitution, the subjective test set forth in Black must be read into all threat statutes that criminalize pure speech. The difference is that with respect to some threat statutes, we require that the purported threat meet an objective standard in addition, and for some we do not.*fn14

As we explained in United States v. Cassel, 408 F.3d 622 (9th Cir. 2005), although the "vagaries of our own case law," id. at 630, made it less than "entirely clear or consistent," "whether intent to threaten is a necessary part of a constitutionally punishable threat," id. at 628, Black "affirmed our own dictum - not always adhered to in our cases - that 'the element of intent [is] the determinative factor separating protected expression from unprotected criminal behavior." Id. at 632 (alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Gilbert, 813 F.2d 1523, 1529 (9th Cir. 1987)). Cassel made clear that Black's "definition of a constitutionally ...

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