The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in favor of a Colorado man convicted of making «genuine threats» who repeatedly sent abusive messages to a local musician.
The court said that billy accountantThe conviction of singer-songwriter Coles Whalen for sending Facebook messages was based on the wrong legal standard.
In a 7-2 vote, the judges ruled that the jury should have been asked to reach a conclusion on whether he intended his comments to be genuine threats. If such messages are not actual threats, they are considered protected speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The case now goes back to the lower courts for further proceedings on whether the conviction should be overturned.
“The state only had to show that a reasonable person would understand its statements as threats,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. «He didn’t have to show any awareness on his part that the statements should be read that way. For the reasons stated, that’s a violation of the First Amendment.»
Conservative Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Amy Coney Barrett dissented.
Barrett wrote that by finding that speakers only lose constitutional protections if they have some sort of subjective knowledge that the language is threatening, the court «unjustifiably accords preferential treatment to actual threats.»
Counterman’s lawyers asked the court to limit the definition of a genuine threat to situations in which the defendant intended to threaten a person. Some lower courts have reached that conclusion, while others have said prosecutors only need to show that a «reasonable person» would view a message as a threat.
in a short Colorado endorsementTwenty-five states have urged judges to give them freedom to prosecute without imposing an intent requirement, saying it can help stop threatening behavior before it leads to violence.
The case is a continuation of a judgment from 2015 in which the court threw out the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who made threatening comments on Facebook directed at his ex-wife. That case was decided on relatively narrow grounds and fell short of the broader constitutional issue raised by Counterman.
In Counterman’s case, prosecutors focused on messages he sent to Whalen on Facebook over two years beginning in 2014. Examples included «I’ve had phone lines tapped before, what are you afraid?» and “You’re not being good at human relations. Die. I do not need you.
Whalen, who called the messages «weird» and creepy, did not respond to any of them and ultimately reported them to police in 2016, according to court documents. Counterman was found guilty of one count of harassment and sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. The sentence was upheld on appeal, which led him to request the intervention of the Supreme Court.
Attorneys for the state said in court documents that Counterman’s conviction was based not only on the messages, but also on what they characterize as his admission that he had watched Whalen. In one message she referred to a white Jeep she was driving and in another she said he had seen her get out of it with her partner. Counterman’s lawyers say the state has no evidence other than the messages to suggest that she spied on Whalen.