On June 27, 2023, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Counterman v. Colorado, No. 22-138, holding that a criminal prosecution based on a true threat of violence requires proof that the defendant subjectively understood the threatening character of the statement such that making the statement was at least reckless.
Between 2014 and 2016, Billy Counterman persistently sent hundreds of unwelcome messages through Facebook to a local musician, creating new accounts to circumvent her attempts to block them. The musician interpreted many of the messages as indicators that Counterman was surveilling her and intended to harm her. Colorado state prosecutors criminally charged Counterman for his behavior, and the Facebook messages themselves were the only evidence presented at trial. Counterman claimed his messages fell within the protections of the First Amendment because they could not be “true threats” if he did not have a subjective understanding that the messages were threatening. The Colorado trial and appellate courts rejected his argument and ruled that “true threats” were subject only to an objective reasonableness standard.
The Supreme Court reversed. While the Court agreed that “true threats of violence” are not protected speech under the First Amendment, the Court held that a court must apply a subjective test to determine if a statement is in fact a true threat of violence. The Court held that this subjective standard is required to avoid a chilling effect on otherwise protected speech. The Court noted that the “ordinary citizen’s predictable tendency” is to steer very wide of speech that may be considered unlawful. The Court held that a subjective standard was necessary to balance the public interest in avoiding unnecessary chilling of lawful speech and the ability of prosecutors to criminally charge defendants for unlawful speech.
The Court then analyzed what level of subjective knowledge is sufficient to accomplish that balance. The Court compared the law governing other non-protected classes of speech, including defamation, and determined that a reckless state of mind is sufficient—i.e., a defendant who consciously disregards a substantial risk that statements would be understood as a true threat may be prosecuted. The Court also concluded that any mens rea requirement higher than recklessness—like purpose or knowledge—would make prosecution too difficult, and “with diminishing returns for protected expression.” To balance the risk of chilling public speech and the need to be able to prosecute true threats of violence, the Court ruled that prosecutors must prove that defendants recklessly made threatening statements.
Justice Kagan authored the opinion of the Court. Justice Sotomayor authored a concurrence in which Justice Gorsuch joined in part. Justice Thomas authored a dissent. Justice Barrett authored a dissent in which Justice Thomas joined.