What is a true threat?

Monday, May 12, 2008

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2003 ruling Virginia v. Black, said 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. The speaker need not actually intend to carry out the threat.” The Court also explained that “[i]ntimidation in the constitutionally proscribable sense of the word is a type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.”

Before Black, the 1969 ruling Watts v. United States was the controlling case for true threats. In Watts, the Supreme Court reversed a lower court that found a student’s statement at a political rally was a true threat. The high court looked at three elements of the statement to determine that it was merely political hyperbole and not a true threat. The justices looked at 1) the context of the statement, 2) the expressly conditional nature of the statement, and 3) and the reaction of the listeners. These factors are still considered by the courts.