Chronicle of a Death Foretold
October 19, 2012 11:34 AM   Subscribe

Can you get in trouble for publicly fantasizing about the death of a (still-living) former President of the United States? Asking for a friend.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico to Law & Government (29 answers total)
Trouble in what way?

Are we talking about getting on a soapbox in the middle of Times Square, or are we talking about mumbling nonsense on a blog in a dark corner of the internet?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:37 AM on October 19, 2012

The Secret Service actively protects both current and former Presidents.

Talking about killing any of them is frowned upon, and the Secret Service does tend to look in to anything they perceive as a threat, regardless of its credibility, if only to determine whether or not it's credible.

Can you go to jail for it? Possibly. Threatening the President of the United States is a federal felony, and that seems to extend to anyone who has been successfully elected, including the President-Elect. It also includes the Vice President and Vice President-Elect. So talking about killing a past, present, or elected but uninaugurated President or Vice President seems reasonably calculated to get you, at minimum, a visit from unpleasant men in suits who would really rather be doing something else.

Save yourself the trouble.
posted by valkyryn at 11:40 AM on October 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

No. Longing for (oh God, come the glorious fucking day) is not making threats against.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:41 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It looks like the relevant law is here. And the answer is yes, if it's not some sort of hyperbole.
posted by chiababe at 11:41 AM on October 19, 2012

If you live in the US, then yes you can.
Ex Presidents, (still officially referred to as President for some reason)
are still under the protection of the Secret Service and
there are a lot of stories of the SS not taking a joke.

Now every singel case I can think of has been about a sitting
President. However the same laws apply.

So yes you can, but its not very likely, it depends a lot on the
size and type of audience that are exposed to the content.
posted by digividal at 11:41 AM on October 19, 2012

This is still up which means "at least sometimes."
posted by griphus at 11:43 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also, what do you mean by "fantasizing about"?

Do you mean, like "someday Jimmy Carter will die, and that will be good because kneejerk antiquated rantiness, amirite?"

Or do you mean advocating the assassination of a former president?

The latter would probably still be pretty bad, especially if they were doing so in a way that was likely to attract attention or seem even vaguely credible. Surviving former presidents still have secret service details, ongoing security issues, and the like.
posted by Sara C. at 11:43 AM on October 19, 2012

Are you talking about fantasizing about this person's death in general, just wishing them ill will and hoping some illness or accident befalls them, or are you talking about wishing some kind of specific violent retribution on them?
posted by contraption at 11:43 AM on October 19, 2012

What do you mean by "fantasizing"? Are you doing the killing in this story or just telling a fictional story based on events around this death/killing?

...Or what the above folks said!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 11:45 AM on October 19, 2012

It also depends on your definition of "trouble." If a chat with some not so nice Secret Service agents isn't something you're particularly interested in, it might well be wise to avoid such things. If you're talking about being successfully convicted of a crime, you could probably push it a lot further.
posted by zachlipton at 11:46 AM on October 19, 2012

I know someone who received a very awkward visit at work from the Secret Service as a result of a hypothetical comment on a relatively minor site in which he said something along the lines of: "If someone really wanted to kill the vice president they would probably do X."

Former presidents are subject to the same protections from the Service.
posted by 256 at 11:50 AM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is a story from the previous administration about somebody who publicly fantasized (on LiveJournal!) about the death of a sitting president. Because somebody read it and reported her, she got an FBI file and a visit from the Secret Service. Under this act, former presidents are also protectees of the Secret Service. So I would say yes, if it gets reported.
posted by clavicle at 11:58 AM on October 19, 2012

In 2008, a man wrote "Re: Obama fk the niggar, he will have a 50 cal in the head soon." and then "Shoot the nig."

An appeals court ruled in 2011 that the writings did not consistute "true threats."

A Google search for "Bagdasarian threat" (not in quotes) turns up plenty of additional discussion.

Wikipedia article.

So I think your friend's fantasies are legal, but that doesn't mean he won't get a visit from the Secret Service.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:06 PM on October 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

Death of a President is a 2006 film depicting in great detail the fictional assassination of President Bush. I wouldn't necessarily call it a 'fantasy' because the assassination has negative consequences, but it's definitely a 'chronicle'. It received bad press and did terribly at the box office, but it was allowed to be released in the U.S. and as far as I can tell there's no record of Secret Service involvement.
posted by acidic at 12:08 PM on October 19, 2012

In terms of responding to things that aren't obviously threats, the secret service detained A J Weberman for "stealing" Nixon's curbside trash in 1980, about six years after he had resigned.

If being detained or questioned by the secret service counts as trouble, then I suspect the answer is "yes."
posted by zippy at 12:19 PM on October 19, 2012

Many people have these fantasies in the privacy of their own brains. But public pronouncements will likely lead to some kind of inquiry...if that counts as trouble. That being said, I am wondering if Tag Romney will be questioned for his publicly stated desire to physically harm the POTUS.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 12:23 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to clarify my question some, the "fantasizing" in question would not in any way be presented as a threat or express a desire for (or against) the death. It would merely be a speculative scenario that could involve something nonviolent, like illness, or an accident. It would be in writing, but explicitly labeled as fiction. There would be no editorial slant. (And just to reiterate, it would involve a living, but former -- not sitting -- President.)
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 12:35 PM on October 19, 2012

I doubt that would be a problem, unless the death were violent or politically motivated in the piece.

George H. W. Bush has a stroke = probably not going to get a visit from the feds.

Bill Clinton is torn limb from limb and dragged through the streets like Mussolini = not great if your goal is to avoid the wrong sort of attention. You still probably wouldn't go to jail or anything.
posted by Sara C. at 12:38 PM on October 19, 2012

This did not result in arrest: Patients were encouraged to devise the optimum sex-death of Ronald Reagan.
posted by lathrop at 12:42 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, Nicholson Baker wrote a whole book (Checkpoint) about characters who fantasize about killing the sitting president.
posted by mattbucher at 12:43 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Fantasizing is not threatening.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 12:52 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It would merely be a speculative scenario that could involve something nonviolent, like illness, or an accident.

That's probably more okay than writing about an assassination scenario. Last time I checked, everyone, including sitting and former Presidents, is going to die. Writing about a former President's natural death does not strike me as particularly likely to attract unwanted attention.

You never can tell though.
posted by valkyryn at 1:00 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

ObSF: "A Cross-Country Trip to Kill Richard Nixon." Orson Scott Card, 1980.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:04 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think this is a "better safe than sorry" sort of situation.
posted by jenfullmoon at 1:09 PM on October 19, 2012

In a word, yes. If you do it publicly.

I have a friend who has quite a few mental health challenges. Many years ago before getting a proper diagnosis, he was in a treatment facility on an extended stay. He made some comments about then President Bush which were overheard by staff. A day later the Secret Service was questioning him. Nothing happened after that, but I am sure he has a file somewhere.

The point is that if this person has these fantasies whether they act on them or not, if other persons hear of it (and depending on their job), they may be legally required to report it. Furthermore, in today's terrorism obsessed national climate, and with a "if you see something, say something" posted just about everywhere, your friend can expect to get some visitors if they verbalize their fantasies too loudly.

Better to tell them to keep it to themselves and maybe even seek professional help regarding fantasizing about people dying in general.
posted by lampshade at 1:33 PM on October 19, 2012

It's illegal to make serious threats against anyone. They don't have to be or have been president.

As noted above, fantasy, hyperbole, or wishing are not threats. However, just because a certain phrasing wouldn't get you convicted in court, don't rule out the FBI paying you a visit anyway.
posted by drjimmy11 at 1:44 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

The 1987 Robocop featured the death of not one but two former presidents (along with over a hundred other individuals) due to an SDI platform misfire. It is mentioned in a newsflash and, like the rest of the movie, it is played as farce.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:56 PM on October 19, 2012

It's still unclear what you mean by "fantasizing."

Writing fiction in which a former president dies as a plot point is unlikely to make trouble for you.

Writing revenge porn in which a former president dies and you go on at great length about how awesome it is and how much the fucker deserved it, that sort of fantasizing, could well get you a visit from the Secret Service.
posted by nebulawindphone at 3:12 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's illegal to make serious threats against anyone. They don't have to be or have been president.

This is true, but it is worth knowing that there is a specific federal law carrying its own penalties (here for Presidents, here for former Presidents and other ancillary parties).

There is an immediately recent example of someone making a threat against Mitt Romney, supposedly "in jest" (to have him assassinated if he were to win the election), and receiving a visit from the Secret Service. He was not, however, charged with a crime.

We've had a discussion or six on MeFi (here's one a decade ago; uff da) about free speech in the context of, say, making a poster of George W. Bush in the form of a target, and whether receiving an investigatory visit from the Secret Service constituted intimidation/chliling effect/censorship. But as far as I know the Secret Service, part of the civil service, considers itself non-partisan and simply has a policy of following up personally with even low-level or potentially misconstrued apparent threats. It is also not all that big a deal as they have officers all around the country who, when not protecting the President and other parties, investigate counterfeiting. So it's not like they flew a team out from D.C.

So I'm pretty certain that the historical record shows the bar for receiving one of these visits is relatively low. That doesn't mean you'll be charged with a crime, but you will probably -- regardless of your or their intent -- feel intimidated. Somewhere in that sentence is the level of "trouble" you're willing to tolerate here.
posted by dhartung at 1:07 AM on October 20, 2012

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