The First Amendment has long been a crucial part of the American culture, history, and judicial system. The First Amendment protects our right to say what we think and feel, with a few stipulations that involve protecting the rights of other citizens around us. One of those stipulations is that threats are not protected and are in fact a criminal act that can result in prosecution. The question is, when does an angry rant cross the line and become a legitimate threat.
How far is too far?
This is a question behind many cases of speech where the speaker is charged with being threatening to another person or group of people. For one man that line was crossed when he contacted the CNN headquarters, accused them of delivering fake news, and threatened to come down to the headquarters and gun down every last one of them. The 19-year-old Michigan man was arrested and charged with attempting to extort and threatening injury. Unfortunately, incidents like this are not isolated and are occurring with more and more frequency,
True threats are not protected under the rights of the First Amendment
While many individuals charged with similar crimes may claim that the words they speak should be protected under First Amendment laws, often comparing them to crude jokes or rants, they are not protected. True threats receive no protection because they can disrupt the lives of the recipient and promote fear. Since threats are not protected, it falls to the courts to determine which type of speech could be considered a true threat.
Watts v. United States
When courts were trying to determine the difference between true threats and rants, the case of Watts v United States in 1969 is often cited. During a political rally, an 18-year-old man made a statement about being drafted and only using his rifle to shoot LBJ.
The comments were overheard by intelligence officials, and Watts was arrested for making threats against the president. After reaching the Supreme Court, it was determined that the speech used by Watts was deemed offensive political hyperbole and not an actual threat. The decisions were made based on the context of the statement and the reaction of the listeners.
Determining if a threat is true or not can be a difficult decision, even for the courts. If you find yourself in a situation where you are charged with making a threat, seeking the advice of a capable attorney is vital to protect your rights and help guide you to the best outcome for your case.