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Missouri State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-University City, faced calls that she should resign after writing on Facebook "I hope Trump is assassinated!" in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Criticism of Chappelle-Nadal’s statement came from Republicans and Democrats, including U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis.
"Calling for the assassination of the President is a federal crime. … (She is) an embarrassment to our state. She should resign immediately," Clay told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an article published Aug. 18.
On Wednesday, the Missouri Senate censured Chappelle-Nadal. The resolution reads, "Members of the Missouri Senate urge Senator Chappelle-Nadal to resign or, upon failure to do so, she may be subject to potential expulsion at a future session of the Missouri Senate."
That’s a political decision. We wanted to know whether calling for the assassination of a president really is a federal crime.
We reached out to Clay’s spokesman, Steven Engelhardt, who pointed us to a Wikipedia article on U.S. Code Title 18, Section 871, which states that "knowingly and willfully" threatening the president is a felony.
While that is the law, after consulting with experts, we found it’s not quite as straightforward as Clay made it out to be. The context, wording and intent of the statement are all important factors to consider to determine whether the speaker committed a federal crime.
Early versions of the law date back as far as 1351, with the British Treason Act. The act made it a crime to plan or imagine the death of the king of England.
The United States is no stranger to presidential assassinations and attempts, which justifies the existence of the current law, said Ronald Feinman, author of the book, "Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama."
"One out of every 10 presidents has been killed, and one out of every seven has been wounded and about half of them have faced threats we know of," Feinman said. "So it is a endemic problem in America."
Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of the MU School of Law, said threats have a "tremendously disruptive effect" and are considered outside the boundary of normal conflict in the political arena.
"Threat laws are designed to, one, prevent the person who's making the threat from carrying out the threat," Lidsky said. "But another purpose is to prevent intimidation of the person who's threatened. So if a speaker says, 'I'm going to kill you,' chances are, your life will be seriously affected if you think someone has made a serious threat to kill you."
The law has evolved, MU School of Law professor Frank Bowman said.
"In 15th century England, this statement would surely be taken as a threat," Bowman said of Chappelle-Nadal’s comment. "Now the Secret Service has to do some triage to discover if a threat was made."
While it is a crime to threaten to assassinate the president, Clay’s statement fails to consider the nuance needed to determine whether a statement is a true threat that would be deemed a crime.
"It's an overstatement," Lidsky said of Clay’s claim. "You really have to look at the statement and discern what the speaker intended. Whether it was a joke, a jest, hyperbole or whether it was a serious intent to threaten the president."
Other experts emphasized the importance of the statement’s language, context and tone when analyzing it.
"The key word really is threat. Threat doesn’t just mean, 'I wish this would happen,'" Bowman said.
The United States Supreme Court explicitly dealt with the issue in 1969 in Watts v. United States, when an 18-year-old man who disagreed with being drafted said, "If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J."
The Supreme Court ruled that the man’s statement was "crude political hyperbole" that "did not constitute a knowing and willful threat against the President."
Experts have stressed that social media complicates the problem.
"A statement made on social media doesn't automatically have the same contextual clues as to the speaker's meaning as a statement made in person," Lidsky said.
When it comes to free speech and what you can say or post on social media, there are limits, Feinman said.
"You can condemn (the president), you can denounce him, but you don't have a right to call for his death, because that could incite others to commit violence," Feinman said.
It’s unclear if Chappelle-Nadal’s statement was "calling for the assassination of the president," as Clay claimed.
"Saying, 'I hope' is not the same thing as saying, 'Please someone go out and assassinate the president,’ " Lidksy said. "The very language of it itself means it's unlikely to be a threat, because she's not saying she's going to assassinate him, and she's not even calling for somebody to go out and assassinate him. It's a hope. And so therefore, that's unlikely to be a federal crime standing on its face."
Experts said they thought it would be unlikely that Chappelle-Nadal would be prosecuted. At most, she could be investigated.
Clay said, "Calling for the assassination of the President is a federal crime."
While calling for the assassination of a president can be a crime, context matters. Decisions need to be made on a case-by-case basis to determine if someone’s statement is a true threat with intent that could lead to prosecution. In Chappelle-Nadal’s case, experts agreed that her statement was more wishful thinking than incitement to assassinate the president. Therefore, Clay’s statement was missing important details and was an overgeneralization of the law.
We rate it Half True.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "Missouri's top Democrats call for senator to resign for 'I hope Trump is assassinated' post," Aug. 18, 2017
Email exchange with Steven Engelhardt, spokesman for Rep. Clay, Aug. 28, 2017
Phone interview, Ronald Feinman, author of "Assassinations, Threats, and the American Presidency: From Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama," Aug. 30, 2017
Phone interview, Frank Bowman, MU School of Law professor, Aug. 30, 2017
Phone interview, Lyrissa Lidsky, MU School of Law Dean, Sept. 1, 2017
Treason Act of 1351, Legislation citation, The National Archives
Watts v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court case, April 21, 1969
Threats against President and successors to the Presidency, U.S. Code Title 18, Section 871
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