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Inmate’s scribble on cell wall ruled a true threat

By David L. Hudson Jr.
First Amendment scholar

A Wisconsin inmate who scribbled a graffiti message in pencil on his cell wall about a judge engaged in an unprotected true threat rather than hyperbole protected by the First Amendment, a Wisconsin state appeals court ruled recently in State v. Ridley.

Prison officers uncovered the graffiti message during a random search of jail cells, finding the words: “Joe Ridley will f--- and kill Judge Hassin.” Underneath the message, Ridley signed his name and the date — which was about a week before it was discovered by guards. Waukesha Count Circuit court Judge Donald J. Hassin had recently sentenced Ridley to 60 days in jail for a disorderly conduct charge without the possibility of work release.

After the message was found, Ridley faced criminal charges for threatening a judge under Wisconsin Statute Sec. 940.203, which provides in part: “Whoever intentionally causes bodily harm or threatens to cause bodily harm to the person or family member of any judge under all of the following circumstances is guilty of a Class H felony.” A jury convicted Ridley of violating the statute.

On appeal, Ridley did not contest that he wrote the message but argued that the words were a “hyperbolic emotional outburst” rather than a true threat. In Watts v. United States, (1969) the U.S. Supreme Court first recognized the true-threat exception to the First Amendment but said that certain kinds of hyperbole did not qualify. In Watts, a young man protested the draft and told a crowd: “If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” — referring to then-President Lyndon Baines Johnson. The Supreme Court deemed this statement a kind of “political hyperbole,” not a true threat.

However, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals rejected Ridley’s argument in its Aug. 6 opinion and found that a jury could have reasonably believed the message to be a true threat. “Taking the words Ridley used, either literally or colloquially, and considering they were written on the wall of a jail cell, a jury could reasonably conclude that they were threatening.”

George Tauscheck, Ridley’s Milwaukee-based attorney, disagreed with the court’s ruling. “The vast majority of cases involving threats to judges dealt with actual written letters delivered to judges. The language here that was deemed to be a threat was never conveyed to anyone but was scribbled on a prison wall.” He pointed out that Ridley had twice written directly to Judge Hassin requesting work release. “Neither of these communications contained a threat and they show that Ridley could communicate directly with Judge Hassin when he wanted to,” Tauscheck said.

“Another factor — not reflected in the opinion — made it more likely that the writing in the cell about the judge was not a true threat,” he added. “Ridley had also written a message about [Ridley’s own] wife” — that she would be sexually assaulted and killed — “and the authorities never even told the wife about the message in the cell. It was never deemed a true threat. I think these writings, especially when read together, represent hyperbolic, emotional writings, not true threats,” Tauscheck said.


Justice Thomas and prisoners’ freedom of expression (analysis)
By David L. Hudson Jr. Reasoning in several opinions renders First Amendment essentially a nullity for inmates challenging restrictions on expression. 10.08.07

Ruling against expression is no music to inmates’ ears (commentary)
By David L. Hudson Jr. 3rd Circuit defers to Pennsylvania prison officials's claims that allowing inmates to play in independent bands posed security risk. 07.23.08

True threats

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