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On further appeal, the Supreme Court reversed in a 5-4 per curiam opinion. The majority determined that the federal statute prohibiting threats against the president was constitutional and that true threats receive no First Amendment protection.
However, the majority also determined that Watts’s crude statements were political hyperbole rather than true threats. “What is a threat must be distinguished from what is constitutionally protected speech,” the majority wrote. “The language of the political arena ... is often vituperative, abusive, and inexact.”
The Court agreed with Watts’s counsel’s characterization of Watts’s speech as “a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President” that did not qualify as a true threat.
Justice William O. Douglas concurred in an opinion that would have gone further than the per curiam majority opinion and invalidated the federal statute. “Suppression of speech as an effective police measure is an old, old device, outlawed by our Constitution,”
Yes. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. delivered the opinion for the 8-1 majority. The Court held that the prosecution needed to show that Elonis intended the posts to be threats, and therefore that there was a subjective intent to threaten . An objective reasonable person standard does not go far enough to separate innocent, accidental conduct from purposeful, wrongful acts. The Court held that, in this case, an objective standard would risk punishing an innocent actor because the crucial element that makes this behavior criminal is the threat, not merely the posting.