(UnitedVoice.com) – The Supreme Court has a long history of issuing decisions that give people a lot of leeway when it comes to speech. Recently, the justices took up a case related to a man who made online threats — and their decision will have broad implications in the criminal justice sphere.
On June 27, the justices issued their ruling in Counterman v. Colorado, potentially upending laws against online threats. The case was about Billy Counterman, a man who became obsessed with a singer-songwriter and began sending her messages on Facebook. Every time she blocked him, he’d open new accounts and say things like, “Die. Don’t need you,” or “Was that you in the white Jeep?”
Eventually, the police arrested him, and Colorado prosecuted him for violating a law prohibiting people from sending repeated communications that would lead a reasonable person to suffer distress. He received four and a half years in prison. The Supreme Court vacated the conviction after finding the law violated the First Amendment.
1/ SCOTUS decides Counterman v. Colorado: "The State must prove in true-threats cases that the defendant had some subjective understanding of his statements’ threatening nature, but the First Amendment requires no more demanding a showing than recklessness"
— Joyce Alene (@JoyceWhiteVance) June 27, 2023
In a 7-2 decision, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Amy Coney Barrett dissenting, the majority determined states “must show the defendant consciously disregarded a substantial risk” that others would view his messages as threatening violence.
The justices stated that the idea that someone could “commit a ‘speech crime’ by accident is chilling. Sending someone to prison because they didn’t realize how others would take their words to mean “would erode the breathing space that safeguards the free exchange of ideas.”
The ruling means prosecutors will have to prove that someone is making a true threat before charging them. Specifically, they have to demonstrate the defendant understood their statements were threatening. Other cases around the country could now be in jeopardy because of the ruling.
Critics believe the Supreme Court made it harder for police and prosecutors to put stalkers in jail.
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