The Supreme Court made the right call on Tuesday when it reversed (7-2) the conviction of a man convicted in Colorado under that state’s anti-stalking laws, establishing in the process a new standard for the criminal prosecution of “true threats.”
While the First Amendment broadly protects speech – including and especially controversial speech – exceptions exist for obscenity, incitement to violence, and other discrete categories. “True threats” constitutes one of those categories.
Yet until Tuesday, some judicial disagreement persisted on the question of how to properly evaluate a purported “true threat” – particularly in the online arena. To quote Justice Kagan, “Courts are divided about (1) whether the First Amendment requires proof of a defendant’s subjective mindset in true-threats cases, and (2) if so, what mens rea standard is sufficient.”
In this case, petitioner Billy Counterman was convicted of stalking by a Colorado court after he sent repeated online messages to a female musician that caused her to fear for her safety. The court convicted Counterman using an objective test employing a “reasonable person” standard. In other words, the court asked whether a “reasonable person” would interpret Counterman’s messages as threatening. The Colorado court found that they would.
On appeal, attorneys for Counterman argued that any determination of whether speech constitutes a “true threat” should take into account the defendant’s intent – i.e. his state of mind (mens rea). The Supreme Court agreed.
In a majority opinion authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the Court found that “the State must prove in true-threats cases that the defendant had some subjective understanding of his statements’ threatening nature.” However, according to the Court, the government need not show that the defendant’s purpose was to threaten; instead, they must merely prove that “the defendant consciously disregarded a substantial risk that his communications would be viewed as threatening violence.”
This “recklessness” standard, Kagan writes, “offers ‘enough ‘breathing space’ for protected speech,’ without sacrificing too many of the benefits of enforcing laws against true threats.” And it’s a true compromise, too – one where both sides walk away a little unhappy. “The rule we adopt today is neither the most speech-protective nor the most sensitive to the dangers of true threats,” Kagan writes. “But in declining one of those two alternative paths, something more important is gained….”
While the majority recognized that some prosecutors may face a higher burden of proof in future true-threats cases, they correctly weighed that burden against the potentially chilling effects of a purely objective test. Kagan writes: “The speaker’s fear of mistaking whether a statement is a threat; his fear of the legal system getting that judgment wrong; his fear, in any event, of incurring legal costs – all those may lead him to swallow words that are in fact not true threats.”
Legally, incorporation of the “mens rea” element in true-threats cases has been a long time coming. The Court has gradually built that element over the years in cases like Virginia v. Black and Elonis v. United States. In other words, it’s legally consistent with prior opinions – but it’s also good policy.
The American Civil Liberties Union, long an ardent defender of even the most offensive free speech, notes: “[O]ne person’s opprobrium may be another’s threat. A statute that proscribes speech even where the speaker does not intend to threaten, as does the Colorado statute at issue here, runs the risk of punishing protected First Amendment expression simply because it is crudely or zealously expressed.”
This is especially true in the context of online speech, which is “often abbreviated, idiosyncratic, decontextualized, and ambiguous.” Statements made on social media platforms can be accessible to impossibly large, diverse, and unpredictable audiences; how they may interpret such speech is anyone’s guess. Thus, the objective test becomes something like a negligence standard – it criminalizes mistakes. Writes the ACLU: “If First Amendment protections are to enjoy enduring relevance in the twenty-first century, they must apply with full force to speech conducted online.”
An amicus brief co-authored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Student Press Law Center builds on this point, suggesting that the objective standard could “incorrectly capture a staggering amount of humor, hyperbole, sarcasm, art, and even malicious speech that was never supposed to reach a particular person, and/or never intended to be read as threatening.”
Counterman may well be convicted on remand based on the new, subjective standard for true threats. As for the rest of us, we now have a lot more certainty on the extent to which the First Amendment protects even our coarsest civil discourse – particularly in the online arena.
We applaud the Supreme Court’s ruling, one that protects all manner of speech that may be critical or harsh or hyperbolic – but non-threatening all the same.