A federal appeals court has tossed the conviction of a Utah man who was found guilty of threatening a professor by sending a violent anti-immigrant email. The judges ruled the verdict violated Aaron Michael Heineman's freedom of speech because it didn't take into account whether he wanted the professor to feel threatened when he sent the poem in 2011 calling him anti-American and a traitor.
Prosecutors said the professor called police in fear for the lives of himself and his family when he got the email threatening death with a Bowie knife and noose. Heineman's father and his defense attorney argued the student at Utah Valley University was born deaf and has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, making it hard for him to understand social behavior and cues. U.S. District Judge David Nuffer refused to consider whether Heineman actually wanted the professor to feel threatened, ruling that someone could reasonably be afraid after getting the email. Heineman was sentenced to three years' probation last year.
But in a ruling handed down Monday, the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals tossed the conviction and ordered the Utah court to consider Heineman's intentions. The panel of judges ruled that anytime speech becomes a crime, courts have to weigh First Amendment rights carefully.
- The Associated Press