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Free speech or illegal threats? Justices could say

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 7, 2014 at 10:21 am •  Published: June 7, 2014
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Messages posted on Facebook and Twitter or sent in emails can be tasteless, vulgar and even disturbing.

But just when do they cross the line from free speech to threats that can be punished as a crime?

As the Internet and social networks allow people to vent their frustrations with the click of a mouse, the Supreme Court is being asked to clarify the First Amendment rights of people who use violent or threatening language on electronic media where the speaker's intent is not always clear.

The justices could decide as early as Monday whether to hear appeals in two cases where defendants were convicted and sent to jail for making illegal threats, despite their claims that they never meant any harm.

In one case, a Pennsylvania man ranted on Facebook in the form of rap lyrics about killing his estranged wife, blowing up an amusement park, slitting the throat of an FBI agent and committing "the most heinous school shooting ever imagined."

The other case involves a Florida woman who emailed a conservative radio talk show host about "second amendment gun rights" and said she was planning "something big" at a Broward County government building or school.

"I'm going to walk in and teach all the government hacks working there what the 2nd Amendment is all about," the email said. Her comments triggered a lockdown affecting more than a quarter-million students.

In both cases, the defendants were prosecuted under a federal statute that makes it crime to transmit a "threat to injure the person of another." Those laws apply only to "true threats" that are not protected by the First Amendment under a doctrine established by the Supreme Court in 1969. The high court has said laws prohibiting threats must not infringe on constitutionally protected speech that includes "political hyperbole" or "vehement," ''caustic," or "unpleasantly sharp attacks" that fall shy of true threats.

Most lower courts say determining a true threat depends on how an objective person would understand the message. But lawyers for the defendants, along with some free-speech groups, say it should depend on the speaker's state of mind. They say the rise of new forms of social media and the freedom of political discourse can lead people to misinterpret comments that are colorful political tirades or coarse rap lyrics not meant to threaten harm.

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