What constitutes a true threat?

A true threat is not protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court defined true threats in Virginia v. Black (2003) as “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.” According to the Supreme Court, true threats include when 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.

This definition means that expression that may seem threatening may be protected, as only true threats where the speaker expresses intent to explicitly cause immediate harm are prohibited. An example of seemingly threatening expression that was protected occurred in Watts v. United States (1969), where the Supreme Court overturned Watts’ conviction for stating at an anti-war rally that, “I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” The Supreme Court ruled that Watts’ language was not a true threat on the life of President Lyndon B. Johnson (L.B.J.), as Watts’ rhetoric was simply “political hyperbole.”