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Tea party leader to be tried on felony charges over email to elected official

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Before firing off that next email to an elected official, you’d better cross your fingers and hope the politician is not feeling anxious about your message.

A judge in Oklahoma Friday ordered the co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party to be tried on felony blackmail and computer crimes charges for sending an email to a state senator who said he felt threatened by its tone, The Associated Press reported.

The judge ruled that probable cause exists that Al Gerhart committed the crimes when he sent an email allegedly designed to intimidate Oklahoma state Sen. Cliff Branan, the Republican chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

At issue was a bill that Branan refused to schedule for a hearing in his committee, saying the House-passed measure was based on a “fringe conspiracy,” according to the AP.

Gerhart’s email demands that Branan give the measure a hearing, “or I will make sure you regret not doing it.”

“I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don’t hear that this bill will be heard and passed,” the email said. “We will dig into your past, your family, your associates, and once we start on you there will be no end to it.”

Branan testified that he was anxious and felt threatened after reading the email, saying it was an attempt to force him to do something against his will.

The senator told an investigator that Gerhart was in a “Rolodex of crazy people” — not the first time tea party members have been classified in such a manner.

“It just kind of got the hair up on the back of my neck,” he said. “It was not your normal email. He had woven family into the email. My two young children are out of bounds.”

“Your First Amendment rights are in trouble, not just mine,” Gerhart said after a preliminary hearing where prosecutors presented their evidence.

In the end, is the email political speech protected by the First Amendment — an argument rejected by the judge — or did the tea party leader go too far and did his threatening tone amount to blackmail?

It’s certain elected officials around the country will be paying attention to the case, because the ruling could bring a whole new element to silencing dissent.

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Tom Tillison


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