Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969)

2012-09-27 21:29:12

The U.S. Supreme Court has struggled with where to draw the line between free speech and personal safety. The Court has been reluctant to protect speech designed to advocate violence. In Watts v. United States, the Court held that the First Amendment does not protect ‘‘true threats’’ (as opposed to those implying action at an uncertain, future time) of violence.

In Watts, the petitioner (discussing the draft at a rally) stated, ‘‘If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sight is L.B.J.’’ He was convicted under a federal law making it a crime to threaten the president. Eventually, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine if Watts’s words were protected by the First Amendment. Although the Court emphasized that the law itself was constitutional, it only applied to ‘‘true threats’’: Watts’s statement was mere political hyperbole and therefore protected.

In 2003, the Court revisited this issue in Virginia v. Black, which involved a Virginia statute making it a felony for anyone ‘‘with the intent of intimidating any person ... to burn ... a cross’’ on another’s property and mandating that such burning is prima facie evidence of an intent to intimidate. Petitioners, convicted of violating the statute, challenged its constitutionality on First Amendment grounds. In a plurality opinion, the Court held that the statute could ban cross burning with the intent to intimidate, as this constituted a ‘‘true threat’’ under Watts. However, the statute could not treat any cross burning as prima facie evidence of intent to intimidate.


References and Further Reading

  • Alonso, Karen. Schenck v. United States: Restrictions on Free Speech. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1999.
  • Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).
  • Fuson, Harold W. Telling it All: A Legal Guide to the Exercise of Free Speech. Kansas City, MO: Andrews and McMeel, 1995.
  • Jasper, Margaret C. The Law of Speech and the First Amendment. Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1999.
  • O’Neil, Robert M., Rights in Conflict: The First Amendment’s Third Century, Law and Contemporary Problems 65 (2002): 7.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003)