The Supreme Court to Consider When Threats Can Be Punished Consistent with the First Amendment

Posted in: Constitutional Law

’Tis the season to begin looking carefully at the Supreme Court’s 2014–2015 docket, now that the Justices have returned from their summer recess and are hearing cases again. One interesting case to be argued in a couple of months, Elonis v. United States, raises questions about how courts should define so-called “true threats” that fall outside First Amendment protection and thus are subject to punishment. Anthony Elonis was convicted of violating federal criminal statutes that prohibit the interstate transmission of communications containing threats to injure other persons, and his convictions were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Background Facts of the Dispute

Mr. Elonis allegedly posted threats on Facebook directed at, among others, his ex-wife, federal law enforcement officials, and school children. For example, in referring to FBI officials (who had visited his home to interview him about his activities), Elonis wrote (seemingly in rap-style cadence):

[T]he next time you know, you best be serving a warrant
And bring yo’ SWAT an explosives expert while you’re at it
Cause little did y’all know, I was strapped wit’ a bomb . . .
I was jus’ waitin’ for y’all to handcuff me and pat me down.
Touch the detonator in my pocket and we’re all goin’ BOOM!

In another posting, Elonis wrote:

That’s it. I’ve had about enough.
I’m checking out and making a name for myself.
Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous shooting ever imagined. . .
The only question is. . . which one?”

In posts about his wife, Elonis wrote: “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch . . . ”

Throughout his prosecution, Elonis has challenged the definition of a threat to be used by the jury, namely, that “[a] statement is a true threat [subject to prosecution] when a defendant intentionally makes a statement in a context or under such circumstances wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual.” Elonis argues under the First Amendment (and also under the federal criminal statute he is charged with violating) that, before a person can be punished for expressing a threat, the government must allege and prove that the defendant subjectively intended to threaten his victim. Elonis does not (and could not) argue that the government must prove a defendant intended to carry out the threat, but he does assert that the government must prove that he intended to place the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.

The Third Circuit (along with a large number of other circuits) rejected this kind of subjective intent requirement. Instead, it held that statements that are reasonably construed as threats by the listener can be punished under the First Amendment. Conversely, the Ninth Circuit (and a number of state high courts) has required the subjective intent to threaten as a predicate to a prosecution for threatening speech. The courts that do require subjective intent often rely on the Supreme Court’s 2003 ruling in Virginia v. Black, where the Court upheld the major portions of a Virginia statute making intimidating cross burning illegal. While the Court upheld the ban on threats expressed through cross burning, however, it also struck down a part of the Virginia law that made burning a cross itself prima facie proof of intimidation and relieved the state of having to offer any other evidence as to the meaning of the accused’s symbolic expression. In reaching its decision, the Court observed that “‘true threats’ encompass those statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals . . . [whether or not] the speaker . . . actually intended to carry out the threat.” The Court noted that prohibitions on threats protect individuals from the fear of violence and the disruption that fear creates, and not just from the likelihood of actual violence. The Court also observed that “intimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person . . . with the intent of placing the victim in fear. . . .” Many of the arguments in Elonis focus on what this language from Black means.

The Issues Elonis Presents

Initially, we offer some relatively modest observations about First Amendment doctrine and Supreme Court practice illustrated by Elonis. First, this is a less-than-ideal vehicle to decide whether intent to threaten is statutorily or constitutionally required, since a reasonable jury might easily conclude that the evidence against Elonis establishes such intent in this case in any event. In other words, if Mr. Elonis wins at the Supreme Court, and the case is sent back for a new trial, a new instruction would be given to the jury but a conviction seems likely in any case. Certainly, the Court can (and will likely) reach the merits in Elonis if it wants to, but this is arguably not the best case for resolving the constitutional issue in dispute.

Second, the Court might avoid the constitutional question by reading a subjective intent requirement into the federal statute. If it does so, then it would still need to rule in a later case on whether the First Amendment requires subjective intent (in the context of a federal or state statute that clearly does not require it.)

Third, notice that much of the debate in this case revolves not around core First Amendment principles, but rather what the Court meant in Virginia v. Black. The Third Circuit’s reading of the words in Black certainly seems plausible; the Court’s description of “intimidation” as including the intent to instill fear could, as the Third Circuit held, refer to a subset of true threats, rather than a definition of the entire category of true threats. And we think the Ninth Circuit misreads Black to the extent that the Ninth Circuit believes that the Court’s result in Black necessarily implies the existence of a subjective intent requirement. Whether or not there is a subjective intent requirement, the Virginia statute that made cross burning prima facie evidence of a threat would be constitutionally problematic because it would relieve the government of having to show, in a case where the defendant exercised his right not to present a defense, that a particular cross burning was, in context, something a reasonable person would perceive as threatening (which is certainly true of many but not all cross burnings).

But more generally, we are not sure the Court in Black was offering a general answer to the question of whether subjective intent in a necessary element the government must prove to convict someone for expressing a true threat. Indeed, we think that assigning so much weight to the precise words Justice O’Connor used in her Black opinion misses the forest for the trees. Determining whether subjective intent is a constitutional prerequisite to punishing a speaker for expressing a true threat is an issue the Court needs to discuss and evaluate on its own terms, not as a derivative discussion of the meaning of ambiguous language in a case where the question was never explicitly raised and thus may not have been on the minds of the Justices whose language is being parsed.

Comparing Threats to Other Types of (Potentially) Harmful Speech

Our fourth, larger point goes to the heart of the matter. If subjective intent is required to hold a person liable under a threat statute when a reasonable person would understand the accused’s expression to constitute a serious threat, the speaker who places a victim in fear of bodily harm or death will escape sanction when the government cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the speaker intended to instill fear. But the First Amendment does not give speakers a right to cause, whether intentionally or not, this kind of fear and apprehension. The key free speech issue raised by this case is: When does the First Amendment prevent government from protecting people from speech that undeniably causes real harm because government action jeopardizes other important free speech interests?

We think the best way to analyze this question is to compare the treatment of threats with the treatment of other kinds of potentially harmful speech, such as incitement, defamation, and offensive speech. Threats are proscribed not just because they might lead to action, but because they inflict injury in themselves. Unlike, say, incitement, where the evil to be regulated is the possibility that a listener may be influenced to act on the speaker’s words, threats wound by their very utterance. In this respect, laws banning threats are more akin to laws sanctioning defamatory speech. In providing civil sanctions for defamation, at least as to private figure victims, no subjective intent is required before government can regulate such expression, whereas in the former setting (of incitement), the First Amendment does seem to require intent to incite before punishment can be imposed. What accounts for this difference in treatment? The answer cannot be that society thinks incitement is necessarily less dangerous than defamation; the costs of incitement have always been recognized as significant.

One explanation for this difference in treatment is that the government’s interest in punishing speech because such speech may influence the thoughts and actions of the audience goes to the very core of why we have a First Amendment. The foundation of free speech doctrine is the right to use speech to persuade others of the merits of our ideas. Thus, when speech is dangerous because it might be acted upon, we are more reluctant to regulate it, and we add the extra layer of a subjective intent requirement as protection against government overreaching. Where speech is dangerous because it causes harm directly, however, (as it does in defamation cases) the government’s interests do not conflict directly with foundational free speech principles. Accordingly, we allow the civil sanctioning of defamatory speech without the extra buffer requirement of subjective intent.

Using this comparative analysis, we would ask whether speech that causes a reasonable person to fear that he or she is threatened with bodily harm or death is of sufficient constitutional value to justify courts adding the additional buffer of protection provided by a subjective intent requirement. We are not at all convinced that the value of such speech can justify allowing the harm it causes to go unsanctioned.

Another comparison—this one between threats, incitement and so-called offensive speech (use of vulgar and insensitive words, etc.)—may also be instructive. In the incitement realm we require government to prove intent and immediacy notwithstanding the harm that incendiary speech may cause not only because of our commitment to shielding persuasive speech from government prohibitions. We also recognize that there is a slippery slope with regard to punishing incitement. Every idea expressed with passion risks inciting its audience. And, accordingly, every idea that is critical of the government and its policies risks inciting anti-government behavior and violations of law. If we provide inadequate protection to incitement, all speech critical of government could be subject to sanction.

A similar analysis applies to the full protection we provide to offensive speech. Here too we recognize that offensive speech may cause its victims real harm and anguish. No one doubts that the grieving mourners at a soldier’s funeral who were subjected to the disparaging speech of Westboro Baptist Church protestors suffered psychological torment. Yet in Snyder v. Phelps, the Court protected the protestors’ right to express their hateful and hurtful message free from civil sanction. But here again we also recognize that tolerance of offensive speech is essential to the maintenance of a free speech regime. Every challenge to orthodoxy may offend some people who are comfortable with the status quo. We must vigorously guard against allowing speech to be punished simply on the ground that it offends people because restricting speech to serve this interest risks swallowing up a substantial part of the First Amendment.

Threats are arguably quite different. Unlike state interests justifying restrictions on incitement or offensive speech, the state’s interest in protecting people from threats of physical violence that would instill fear in reasonable people seems more cabined and focused. We do not worry that core free speech principles would be undermined if speech that places reasonable people in fear of serious bodily harm or death is prohibited, whether or not the speaker intends his message to have such a frightening effect.

How Will the High Court Rule?

Some analysts predict the Court will reverse the Third Circuit and add a subjective intent requirement to the test for constitutionally proscribable threats. They say this because the current Court has been extremely protective of expression (even odious expression) in a variety of settings, and because so much speech today (especially in rap music and other popular forms of entertainment) is coarse and uses provocative and sometimes violent language. The notion would be that true threats should not be defined so broadly as to sweep too much of what people actually say in the real world within a category of unprotected speech. (Indeed, Mr. Elonis argues that the rap style of his Facebook postings makes his speech less threatening.)

We understand this argument, but aren’t persuaded by it. The prevalence of violent imagery in music and other cultural venues in today’s society should already be taken into account by the requirement (on which everyone agrees) that a listener’s fear must be reasonable in context, and not based simply on some hypersensitivity to ugly, disturbing language. Unless there is a reason to fear that juries won’t already factor changes in speech patterns into the definition of what reasonable people would experience as a threat, it is not clear, at least to us, that an extra element of subjective intent is needed here.

Before we conclude, we do note (circling back to our comparative analysis) that in the defamation setting, constitutional doctrine does require subjective intent (in the form of knowledge or recklessness as to falsity) when the victim is a public official. The case law is more protective of speech critical of our government officials than it is with respect to negative speech concerning private individuals. Perhaps the same should be true for threats; because we want citizens to be free to vent anger against their representatives, maybe we should allow them to engage in threatening speech except when they mean to instill fear. On the other hand, the requirement that a victim/listener feel reasonably threatened might itself be sufficiently flexible to protect vociferous ranting against officials, in that officials are less likely to be reasonable in feeling fear than are ordinary folks because officials should know that citizens may exaggerate their anger and rhetoric when it comes to government. In this regard, we emphasize that a reasonable-victim standard does not give juries carte blanche to punish speech whenever they desire; judges are perfectly capable of ruling that, as a matter of law, certain provocative words cannot, in modern and specific context, be understood by listeners as actual threats that put the listeners in reasonable fear of harm.