‘Kill Obama’ sign at Aspen homesite short-lived
October 23, 2012
ASPEN – A home under construction at Aspen’s Burlingame Ranch affordable-housing neighborhood attracted the ire of some neighbors Tuesday – and the attention of the Secret Service. Red lettering painted on the home’s exterior read, “Kill Obama.” It didn’t stay up long.
Soon after Aspen Police Officer Terry Leitch began his shift Tuesday morning, he began fielding complaints from Burlingame residents about the message. Meanwhile, the building’s owner, artist Lee Mulcahy, who’s well known in local circles for his written, verbal and artistic attacks on government and big business, contacted Aspen police Tuesday morning insisting that he was not the culprit.
Around 4 p.m., Mulcahy, a self-described tea party member who’s offered his support for vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan on his Facebook page, painted over the message, Leitch said. Leitch said that when he visited Mulcahy in the afternoon, the officer was accompanied by a member of the Secret Service.
“That might have shook him up a little bit,” Leitch said. “And while we were out there, he covered it up.”
The agent talked to Mulcahy, and “he kind of stressed the point how people’s perceptions of that (‘Kill Obama’ message) would be,” Leitch said.
Email messages left with Mulcahy – who was instrumental in the Occupy Aspen movement and was fired last year by Aspen Skiing Co. for handing out fliers on company property criticizing it for its pay to ski instructors – were not returned. Attempts to reach him on his cellphone were unsuccessful.
Two neighbors contacted The Aspen Times on Tuesday to complain, as well. They said the message troubled them because it was in plain view to both residents, passers-by and those waiting at the bus stop, which is close to the house. They asked that their names not be used for this story, fearing that Mulcahy would retaliate against them.
“Residents told me they have kids who spend time right in front of the house at the bus stop,” Leitch said. “They don’t want their kids seeing that message.”
Leitch said that while the message was strong, “We don’t view it as a threat that ‘I’m going to kill Obama.'”
Also contacted was the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority, which oversees employee housing. Its executive director, Tom McCabe, said he received an email from a Burlingame homeowner, along with photo attachments of Mulcahy’s house. McCabe said he forwarded the information to the Secret Service office in Denver.
“I really called the Secret Service as a citizen,” he said.
It was unclear whether McCabe’s message to the Secret Service prompted one of its members to come to Aspen. Leitch said he did not know why the Secret Service member was in Aspen.
“I think they were dealing with something else,” Leitch said.
Said McCabe, “Personally, I think when we’re in a heated national political climate, when emotions run high and people say things like that that are careless to that degree, I’m wondering what they’re thinking.”
It’s not the Housing Authority’s role to get involved in an episode of this nature, McCabe said. Instead, it would fall under the jurisdiction of the Burlingame homeowners association. The homeowners association president could not be reached immediately Tuesday.
Denver First Amendment attorney Steven Zansberg, who represents The Aspen Times and other news outlets as counsel for the Colorado Press Association, said the “Kill Obama” message is protected by free speech.
“It is a federal offense (a felony) to make a ‘true threat’ against the president of the United States,” he wrote in an email responding to questions from the Times. “However, the Supreme Court has held that statements of political protest, that are not intended to (or are not reasonably understood as) conveying a serious threat – one that would cause reasonable apprehension in the target of the threat – are not subject to criminal punishment.”
Zansberg noted that the “Kill Obama” message also doesn’t appear to fall under the “incitement to imminent lawless conduct,” which is an unprotected category of free speech. In order for that to happen, “the speech in question was both directed to and likely to produce imminent unlawful conduct by third parties. Here, emblazoning one’s home with this message is likely not (to) be deemed a true ‘call to action’ to others to kill President Obama.”