Freedom of Speech and True Threats

By Rothman, Jennifer E. | Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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Freedom of Speech and True Threats

Rothman, Jennifer E., Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy


Consider the following scenarios:

You are a physician at a local Planned Parenthood clinic. As part of your job you perform abortions. There have been protests outside the clinic and you have heard about the murders of several doctors around the country who were killed because they performed abortions. One day a colleague calls you and tells you that an anti-abortion group has put up a website which lists the names and home addresses of doctors who perform abortions. When you look at the website you find your name and address on the list along with strong language saying that you and the others on the list will one day be held accountable for your crimes against humanity. Some of the doctors' names have black lines through them. You recognize these names as people who have been murdered by antiabortion fanatics. Can you successfully sue the creators of the website for threatening you and causing you severe emotional distress, or is this website protected by the First Amendment? (1)

Now imagine yourself a woman in college. You hear from a friend that a classmate has posted a story about you on the Internet with a newsgroup called "sex stories." You read the posting and find a gruesome and detailed story of the narrator torturing and raping you. The story culminates in a description of you being doused with kerosene and lit on fire. The posting uses your real name. You are scared and call the police. Should your classmate be convicted of threatening you? (2)

You attend a rally in support of a boycott of white-owned stores whose owners will not hire African American employees. You are aware of several violent acts against blacks who have ignored the boycott including the firing of shots into the house of one boycott violator. The leader of the boycott speaks at the rally and warns boycott violators that "their necks will be broken." You had been considering returning to some of the white-owned stores but are frightened by the leader's words. Should the leader of the boycott be arrested for threatening boycott violators or is his speech protected by the First Amendment? (3)

As a child you grew up watching the Lone Ranger on television. From this show you picked up the phrase "the silver bullets are coming" which signified to you that the Lone Ranger was on his way to save the day. Many years later, after an acrimonious divorce, you contact an FBI agent with newfound evidence that implicates your ex-father-in-law in an illegal bankruptcy scheme. On your voice-mail message to the FBI agent, rather than just saying you found new evidence, you use your favorite childhood phrase: "the silver bullets are coming!" Shortly after leaving this message, you are arrested for threatening a federal officer. Should you be convicted? (4)

As the above situations show, there are many different contexts in which statements might be considered threatening. Many courts and scholars have focused only on one or two situations individually. The problem with not considering a broad spectrum of scenarios is that too often scholars and courts rely on gut judgments rather than on a clear and predictable test. The main purpose of this article is to create a test for determining when a statement is a "true threat" not deserving of First Amendment protection.

The law surrounding threats has gained recent attention from commentators after decades of virtual anonymity and unaddressed confusion among the lower courts. The sudden interest in threats has been sparked primarily by the proliferation of widely disseminated Internet speech. (5) In particular, two high-profile cases have shined the spotlight on threats: the so-called Nuremberg File case (6) and the Jake Baker case, (7) both of which I used in the above hypotheticals. Despite this recent interest, the three major hornbooks and treatises on the First Amendment and the Constitution still do not have an index listing for true threats.

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Freedom of Speech and True Threats


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