- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

A California political science professor drew the attention of the U.S. Secret Service, Capitol Police and FBI this week after one of his students followed through on a classroom assignment and sent an e-mail message to an elected official that said “kill the president.”

The e-mail, which was sent to the Washington office of Rep. Mike Thompson, California Democrat, was promptly investigated and determined not to be serious, according to news reports.

Michael Ballou, an adjunct professor at the Santa Rosa Junior College in Petaluma, was interviewed about his assignment by supervisors this week, but he told a local newspaper that no disciplinary action had been taken against him.

College offices were closed yesterday and officials could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Ballou told the Bay City (Calif.) News this week that his e-mail assignment — which he had given before in his “Introduction to U.S. Government” classes — was intended to expose students to “the wave of fear and paranoia” that many U.S. citizens feel about their government.

Typing the words “kill the president” in e-mail and sending it to an elected official serves as an object lesson in that fear, said Mr. Ballou, who has about 30 students in his six-week summer school class.

Mr. Ballou’s assignment was intended as an “experiential exercise” to help students understand “why more people don’t participate in the political process,” Doug Garrison, executive dean of the Petaluma campus, told the San Francisco Chronicle this week.

However, he added, Mr. Ballou’s assignment “clearly is a violation of our board policies.” “Whether the intention [of a threat] was there or not, he created an environment where he was jeopardizing the students,” Mr. Garrison said.

Mr. Ballou later said he never told the students to actually send such e-mail, but one student did — to Mr. Thompson, whose district includes the Santa Rosa college.

On Monday, after the July Fourth weekend, a staff member for Mr. Thompson opened the e-mail, which had only three words —”kill the president” — and “was quite alarmed by it,” said spokeswoman Leslie Danz. “We contacted the congressman and he was alarmed as well.”

They immediately alerted the Capitol Police, she said, adding that congressional offices have been trained “in all kinds of security procedures” since September 11.

Secret Service involvement was just another phone call away.

Any threat with “any reference to the president” is turned over to the Secret Service, a spokeswoman for the Capitol Police said yesterday.

The FBI also became involved when it was contacted about the assignment by a mother of another student, according to the Bay City News.

Why should one e-mail get all this attention? Because it’s a crime to threaten to kill the president and any threats to the president are investigated, said Paul Rosenzweig, a specialist on law and homeland security at the Heritage Foundation.

Intent matters — if someone gets angry and says they could just kill someone but they don’t mean it, “that’s not a true threat,” he said. As a result, the Santa Rosa student is probably not a criminal.

However, the Secret Service has got to treat threatening e-mail “as something to investigate; it would have been utterly irresponsible to ignore it,” said Mr. Rosenzweig.

Given the Secret Service’s predictable response, he added, the professor’s assignment “sounds like a stupid demonstration project … goo-goo think.”

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