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Death threats against Obama: Did Florida cop 'fan flames'?

Many offhand death threats against President Obama, including several by US police, are leading to public scrutiny and concern – even if they are not leading to legal action.

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Most such threats simply come with the territory. "Hundreds of celebrity howlers threaten the President of the United States every year, sometimes because they disagree with his policies, but more often just because he is the President,” write the authors of the textbook “Stalking, Threatening and Attacking Public Figures.” 

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Idle talk on the Internet and social media, meanwhile, has pushed courts to reconsider the impact of presidential-threat laws on free speech. In 2011, for example, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals nullified the conviction of a California man who posted threats against Obama on an online message board. 

“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,' ” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt in the court’s opinion.

Yet because of Obama’s race, even implied threats sometimes take on a deeper, more disturbing meaning that many Americans find discomfiting. 

Before the election, there were reports from various parts of the country of chairs “lynched” from trees in reference to Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” speech about Obama at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. Near Dothan, Ala., an effigy of Obama with a sign that said “Pray 4 Assassin” sat outside a home for the month running up to the election. It was removed after the Secret Service responded. 

"Whether you're a Democrat or a Republican is not the issue and whether you like the president or don't like the president it's really not the issue," a neighbor who complained to police about the display told WTSP-TV. "The issue is really respect for other people. This kind of behavior to me is just unacceptable and I think the people have a right to respond to it.” 

Indeed, even as the volume of online threats has reportedly gone up, so, in response, has public scrutiny of threat-makers.  

The website Jezebel, for example, outed several teens who tweeted racist and hateful messages about Obama after his reelection, posting pictures of them, their tweets, and reportedly contacting their schools to report their behavior. 

Private employers have taken similarly firm steps. In California, a Cold Stone Creamery employee, 22-year-old Denise Helms, was fired following an obscenity-laced social media rant in which she described Obama in derogatory terms and suggested that “maybe [Obama] will be assassinated” in his second term.  

While there were no charges filed, the ice cream shop had no patience for such disrespect, saying on Twitter that “We were as shocked as you were by her outrageous & completely unacceptable comments.” 

Ms. Helms told Fox 40 TV in Sacramento that she wasn’t serious. “I think I was just really upset, and it just kind of came out,” she said.

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