Donald Trump, against all advice and rumors of pivot, will continue to be Donald Trump. Today, at a rally, he uttered a line that some have taken as a suggestion that Hillary Clinton (or possibly judges) could or should be killed if they did not support Second Amendment rights:
At a rally here, Mr. Trump warned that it would be “a horrible day” if Mrs. Clinton were elected and got to appoint a tiebreaking Supreme Court justice.
“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” Mr. Trump said, as the crowd began to boo. He quickly added: “Although the Second Amendment people — maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Trump's staff quickly issued a press release saying that this comment was merely a reference to the vigorous political activism of Second Amendment fans, not to violence. I express no opinion about what Trump "meant": I think trying to parse his Joycean ramblings is usually pointless.
But let's say we choose to interpret this as Donald Trump suggesting that, if Clinton appoints judges hostile to the Second Amendment, she or the judges could be shot.
Is that a crime? Is it outside the protections of the First Amendment?
No, I'm confident that it isn't.
People are referring to this as a threat, but it's more like incitement. Under any interpretation Trump isn't saying he will shoot anyone; he's suggesting that someone else might — and perhaps implying that they should.
Attempts to punish incitement to violence are governed by the "clear and present danger" test articulated in Brandenburg v. Ohio. Brandenburg involved a Klan rally at which a speaker said "We're not a revengent organization, but if our President, our Congress, our Supreme Court, continues to suppress the white, Caucasian race, it's possible that there might have to be some revengeance [sic] taken." He was convicted under the Ohio Criminal Syndicalism statute for "advocat[ing] . . . the duty, necessity, or propriety of crime, sabotage, violence, or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform." In one of the most important First Amendment decisions of the last half-century, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction. "[T]he constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a State to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action." Thus, since the Klansman wasn't advocating imminent lawless action and likely to incite it, his words were protected by the First Amendment. By the same logic, Trump's comment is protected. It's conditional, it's directed to something that will happen (at the earliest) more than six months in the future, and it's not likely to produce action. I don't think this is a close call at all.
What if we stubbornly treat Trump's comment as a threat? Isn't it a federal crime to threaten a major presidential candidate?
Under the true threat doctrine, it's still protected by the First Amendment.
Consider the Supreme Court's ruling in Watts v. United States. At an anti-draft protest, Watts said he would resist the draft and that "If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L. B. J." He was convicted of threatening the President. The Supreme Court reversed the conviction. The court noted that the statement was made at a political rally and drew a laugh from the crowd. "We agree with petitioner that his only offense here was 'a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President.' Taken in context, and regarding the expressly conditional nature of the statement and the reaction of the listeners, we do not see how it could be interpreted otherwise."
Since Watts courts have grappled with whether the government must prove that a threat is just objectively threatening (meaning, a reasonable person would take it as an expression of intent to do harm) or also subjectively threatening (meaning, the speaker intended that it be taken that way), and that issue is not fully resolved. Thankfully we don't have to delve into the fetid swamp that is Donald Trump's subjective intent, because I don't think the objective test is anywhere close to being met. Like Watts, the statement was spoken at a political rally, and like Watts, it drew laughter, and like Watts, it was hypothetical and conditional. Moreover the "maybe there is, I don't know" softens it substantially. At most it's the sort of hyperbole that Watts protected. It's not anywhere close to the sort of extreme and specific statements that have been taken as threats in the political context, like the abortion provider "wanted" posters in Planned Parenthood v. American Coalition of Life Activists or the nutty white supremacist in United States v. Turner (both of which show how courts sometimes blur the lines between incitement and threats). Again, with respect to dissenters out there, I don't see this as a close call.
In America, under the First Amendment, I can say something like "if Donald Trump gets elected, someone should assassinate him for the good of the nation." That statement may be immoral, and destructive of the very American values it purports to defend, but unless it calls for imminent action or expresses an objectively credible intent to do harm, it's protected speech.