Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Secret Service made the right call on Ted Nugent

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Tue April 24, 2012
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.
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

Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a comedian and frequent television commentator. He is the editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report" and co-director of the upcoming documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!" Watch him on CNN Saturdays with Don Lemon at 10 p.m. ET. Follow him on Twitter: @deanofcomedy

(CNN) -- 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.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah

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.)

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.

West: Nugent doesn't have 'ill will'
Sen. Inhofe weighs in on Nugent comments
Ted Nugent: Obama admin 'vile, evil'

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."

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.)

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dean Obeidallah.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT