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Secret Service made the right call on Ted Nugent

Musician Ted Nugent, shown at a GOP campaign rally in 2010, was interviewed last week by the Secret Service for his remarks about President Obama.

Story highlights

  • Ted Nugent's remarks at the NRA convention attracted Secret Service attention
  • Dean Obeidallah says threats against president shouldn't be tolerated
  • He says Nugent's remarks didn't represent a true threat; free speech is protected
  • Obeidallah: Allowing open expression is important for freedom, democracy

Rocker Ted Nugent found himself being investigated by the U.S. Secret Service after making this statement last weekend at the NRA Convention: "If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year."

While I dismissed Nugent's comments as just another idiotic statement by the person known as "The Motor City Madman," others thought Nugent may have violated the federal law that makes it a crime to threaten the president of the United States. CNN contributor LZ Granderson even wrote an article entitled "Ted Nugent should be in jail," calling for the arrest of Nugent. However, Granderson recognized that under the law as it stands, Nugent would not, in fact, be imprisoned for the comment at issue.

Threats against the president of the United States should not be tolerated, regardless of the president's political affiliation.

But while viscerally I may agree with those calling for Nugent's arrest, they are absolutely and unequivocally wrong. (In full disclosure, I must reveal that I do have Ted Nugent's classic hit "Cat Scratch Fever" in my IPod, but I still feel I can be objective in this matter.)

Dean Obeidallah

Nugent should not be prosecuted for two equally important reasons: He did not break the law, and we must be vigilant in protecting freedom of expression when it involves political subject matter.

From a legal point of view, Nugent's statement did not violate the controlling federal statute which provides that it's a crime to make: "any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States."

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    To violate this statute, a person must make a "true threat" as defined by the federal courts. However, Nugent's words were ambiguous and did not objectively indicate a threat against the president. There's little doubt Nugent's statement would be considered by the courts as nothing more than "political hyperbole," not a crime.

    Furthermore, when considering this federal statute, our courts have been more protective of statements made at a political rally. Nugent's comment was made at a political event -- the NRA convention, which parenthetically I must note was held in St. Louis, the city with the second highest rate of teens being killed by guns.

    The Secret Service met with Nugent on Thursday before his concert in Oklahoma, and based on their discussions came to the same conclusion. They did not arrest him and announced the matter was resolved.

    After the meeting, Nugent even praised the Secret Service agents with his statement: "God bless the good federal agents wherever they may be." (Although if you think about his statement -- "wherever they may be" - he may have actually been mocking the agents he had just met.)

    In any event, Nugent was free to play his concert that night and treat the audience to his greatest hit -- or maybe he has two -- I'm only aware of the one song in my IPod.

    Not only was the Secret Service's decision legally sound, it was also absolutely needed to ensure we have open and candid discussion about our elected officials, even when the comments are as asinine as Nugent's.

    Our courts have uniformly held that no form of speech is entitled to greater constitutional protection than political speech. The U.S. Supreme Court offered these instructive words in 1969, which courts have been employing ever since: "Debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials."

    While the words Nugent used regrettably contribute to the growing lack of civility in American political discourse, it was still political speech. It is for the good of our democracy that the Ted Nugents of the world -- and I truly hope there is only one -- can make even ugly and caustic statements about the president without fear of imprisonment.

    Anything else could lead to a chilling effect on free expression which we cannot and should not allow.

    (Editor's note: An earlier version of this article contained a statistic which the Secret Service has denied: a statement that threats against President Obama have jumped 400% from those made against President George W. Bush. The Secret Service said that is not correct.)

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