A recent report on an upcoming Supreme Court case from the New Republic made me think–definitely not for the first time–about the widespread misconceptions around the First Amendment.
Most of the people who read this blog are aware of many of those misconceptions. Probably the most annoying is the most basic–it constantly amazes me (okay, irritates the heck out of me) how many Americans don’t know that the First Amendment, like the rest of the Bill of Rights, protects only against government action.
I still remember a call I got when I was with Indiana’s ACLU; the caller had applied for a position with White Castle, and had been told that his extensive tattoos were incompatible with their customer service standards. He demanded we sue White Castle for infringing his Free Speech rights. I had to explain that–had the City Council passed an ordinance against tattoos, that would have violated his First Amendment rights, but White Castle is private–and has its own First Amendment right to determine the manner of its own communication.
The case described in the linked article isn’t that clear-cut. It involves an often-contested “gray area.”
The Supreme Court will hear Counterman v. Colorado in April to decide whether prosecutors must prove that a defendant meant to threaten someone with harm, or if they can opt for the lower threshold of whether a reasonable person might interpret a defendant’s actions or statements as a threat. Where the high court ultimately comes down on this distinction could be consequential in an age when it’s easier than ever for Americans to threaten not just each other, but also election workers, FBI agents, members of Congress, and even Supreme Court justices. How far does the First Amendment go to protect them?
In my classes, I took a rather unorthodox approach to this question, and a number of similar issues. While you won’t find my distinction in legal treatises, it seemed to help students understand the purpose–and limits– of the Free Speech clause. The fundamental distinction I drew was between speech (defined as communication of a message) and action.
The distinction doesn’t rely on whether there was verbal communication.
If I tell you that this cubic zirconium ring I’m selling is really a diamond, and charge you accordingly, I have engaged in fraud–a behavior. The First Amendment won’t protect me.
If I text and telephone you every hour and call you names, that’s harassment–a behavior. The First Amendment won’t protect me.
If I burn an American flag, I am sending a message (we know it’s a message, because most Americans understand it and find it offensive). That message is protected by the First Amendment.
The problem for law enforcement arises when it is unclear whether we’re dealing with behavior–a genuine threat–or the expression of an opinion. (As lawyers like to say, it’s a “fact-sensitive” inquiry.) Social media trolling has vastly complicated this determination.
At the heart of this case is a campaign of harassment that seems all too familiar. The plaintiff, Billy Counterman, used multiple Facebook accounts to send hostile messages to an unidentified local musician in Colorado. Among the numerous messages that Counterman sent her were ones that read, especially in the context of the years-long barrage, as threats. “Fuck off permanently,” Counterman said in one of the messages. “You’re not being good for human relations,” read another. “Die. Don’t need you.” The target, who never responded to him and blocked him multiple times, ultimately contacted Colorado police, who charged Counterman for violating the state’s anti-stalking statutes.
Colorado law defines the offense to describe anyone who “repeatedly follows, approaches, contacts, places under surveillance, or makes any form of communication with another person … in a manner that would cause a reasonable person to suffer serious emotional distress and does cause that person … to suffer serious emotional distress.” Notably, under the rulings of Colorado courts, prosecutors aren’t required to prove that the defendant intended to threaten a person. They instead must only show that a reasonable person would have taken the statements as threats, which is a much easier threshold to clear at trial.
In the lower courts, the troll was handed a sentence of four years under the state’s anti-stalking statute.
This is one of those “hard cases” that –as the saying goes– sometimes make bad law. Four years seems pretty excessive for being an online asshole; on the other hand, such trolling far too frequently becomes a “heckler’s veto”-defined as behavior that allows people who disagrees with a speaker’s message to shut that message down.
It remains to be seen how the Court will treat online harassment, but it sure seems like it falls on the “behavior” side of my explanatory line…..