First Amendment Has Its Limits

Even though the First Amendment uses pretty sweeping language – “Congress shall make NO law . . .”— it is not unlimited. A white supremacist learned that lesson recently.

William White (his real name) operated a Web site dedicated to spreading neo-Nazi propaganda and urging violence against purported enemies of the cause. He also used the site to draw attention to the trial of neo-Nazi leader Matthew Hale, who was convicted of soliciting the murder of a federal district court judge. After Hale’s conviction, White called for violent attacks against the jury foreman, going so far as to provide the juror’s name, photo, and address.

Based on these posts, a federal grand jury indicted White for soliciting a crime of violence. At trial, the district court judge acquitted White, finding insufficient proof that he solicited or intended a third party harm the juror – and that the speech was protected by the First Amendment.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed on both points, based on the blog’s context and readership.

In prior posts, White openly applauded murders and advocated assassinations of purported enemies of the white supremacist movement. Avid readers of the blog were extremists who knew the Web site identified enemies who should be assassinated. So, although White didn’t explicitly call for the juror’s murder, his loyal readers understood the context.

Also, the court wasn’t bothered that White failed to solicit a specific would-be assassin. By reaching out to his extremist readership, White revealed his desire for any of his followers to respond.

While the First Amendment may protect even hateful speech, it doesn’t protect criminal solicitation. Given the detailed personal information White provided, the context of the blog, and the demographic of his readership, the post went beyond a theoretical musing. It became an invitation to commit a crime. And there’s no First Amendment protection for that.