Director, Center for Supreme Court AdvocacyNational Association of Attorneys General
This Report summarizes an opinion issued on January 23 (Part I); and cases granted review on December 27, 2022, and January 13, 2023 (Part II).
Opinion: Counterman v. Colorado, 22-138
Counterman v. Colorado, 22-138. The Court will clarify the standard for determining whether a statement is a true threat unprotected by the First Amendment. Most federal courts of appeals apply an objective test that asks whether a reasonable person would interpret the statement as a threat of violence. By contrast, the Ninth and Tenth Circuits employ a subjective test that asks whether the speaker intended the recipient to feel threatened. State courts are similarly divided, with some applying a hybrid test that considers both the speaker’s subjective intent and whether a reasonable person would view the statement as a threat. This is the second time that the Court has agreed to address this split. The issue was presented in Elonis v. United States, 575 U.S. 723 (2015), but the Court ultimately resolved that case on a different basis.
The issue here arises in the context of a criminal prosecution for stalking. Over the course of two years, petitioner Billy Raymond Counterman directly messaged a local musician on Facebook without invitation or response. Some of the messages suggested that he was physically surveilling her, while others told her to “Die” and “Fuck off permanently.” Counterman’s messages caused the victim to fear for her safety, so she told her family and police. Relying on 17 messages, Colorado charged him with stalking. Under Colorado law, prosecutors did not need to prove that Counterman intended his statements to be threatening or that he was aware that they could be interpreted that way. Counterman moved to dismiss the charge on First Amendment grounds, arguing that his messages were not true threats and thus were protected speech. The trial court denied the motion and a jury found Counterman guilty of stalking. The Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed Counterman’s conviction. 497 P.3d 1039. In holding that Counterman’s statements were true threats subject to criminal prosecution, the Colorado Court of Appeals applied the objective test that asks whether a reasonable person would view the statements as threatening. The court of appeals rejected Counterman’s argument that a speaker’s subjective intent to threaten is necessary for a statement to constitute a true threat, noting that the Colorado Supreme Court recently rejected that rule absent further guidance from the U.S. Supreme Court. The Colorado Supreme Court later denied Counterman’s petition for review.
Relying on history, tradition, and U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Counterman argues in his petition that “heightened scienter is necessary to true threats.” He notes that, generally, consciousness of wrongdoing is required for a criminal conviction. A scienter requirement is especially important for a statute that regulates speech, Counterman contends, because convicting “a person for negligently misjudging how others would construe the speaker’s words would erode the breathing space that safeguards the free exchange of ideas.” Counterman submits that a purely objective test for true threats conflicts with the Court’s true threats jurisprudence, including Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003). There, the Court stated 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.” (Emphasis added.) Counterman relies on this language to argue that the Court has already imposed a heightened scienter requirement for true threats. He also points out that in incitement cases, the Court has required proof that the speaker intended to produce imminent disorder. See Hess v. Indiana, 414 U.S. 105, 109 (1973) (per curiam).
Colorado argues that its objective test for true threats is consistent with the Court’s free speech jurisprudence. It compares its “context-driven objective standard” to the Court’s analysis in Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969). There, in holding that the speaker’s comments at a rally were not true threats subject to criminal prosecution, the Court focused on the plain language of the statements, the context in which they were made, and the listeners’ reaction. Colorado’s test similarly examines “the contested expression’s context, including the listeners’ reaction.” In Colorado’s view, the Court in Black did not subsequently adopt a subjective-intent requirement for true threats. It reads Black as simply identifying one circumstance where a speaker makes a true threat, namely when he communicates with the intent to threaten the recipient. Colorado maintains that Black did not “state that true threats were limited to such statements.” Colorado also contends that an objective test is especially important to protect victims of stalking because stalkers may be delusional, thereby making it difficult for prosecutors to prove a subjective intent to threaten. And because its objective test considers the context in which the statements were made, Colorado submits that speakers will be protected from unfair punishment.