Bounds on speech freedoms

A Virginia court has convicted neo-Nazi Bill White for threatening Ottawa human rights lawyer Richard Warman more than three years after the threats first appeared on the internet.

Long time followers of this blog will recall that we wrote about this case in August, 2006. At the time, we sought authorization for carriers to block the death threats.

Following the verdicts, U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy said:

For an extended period of time, William White has hidden behind the First Amendment while making racist remarks and threatening people who are different from him. While the First Amendment protects our ability to express views even if unpopular, it does not provide a license to threaten, intimidate, and inflict emotional distress.

In this case, the threat was made from a country with a legal and judicial system that was willing to prosecute the perpetrator of the illegal posting.

How should a country maintain the sovereignty of protecting its own citizens from illegal content?

When does legitimate free speech cross the line? The instructions to the jury are interesting in defining a “true threat”:

For you to find the defendant guilty of each count, you must find that the communication issued in that count contains true threat. The First Amendment does not protect true threat. Whether a communication in fact contains a true threat, is determined in accordance with the interpretation of a reasonable recipient familiar with the context of the communication.

The government does not have to prove that the defendant subjectively intended for the recipients to understand the communication as a threat. The speaker need not have intended to carry out the threat or have the ability to carry out the threat. The government does not have to prove that the person who received the threat was actually placed in fear of harm.

On the other hand, a statement does not become a true threat simply because it instills fear in the listener. You may, however, consider the reaction of any recipient in determining whether a reasonable person would consider the message a true threat. A true threat is a serious expression of an intent to injure the person of another or to commit an act of unlawful violence against a particular individual or a group. A true threat is a serious threat as opposed to mere idle or careless talk, exaggeration or something said in a joking matter.

A true threat is more than mere political hyperbole or vehement caustic and unpleasantly sharp political attacks or crude offensive and abusive methods of stating political opposition. Identifying and providing personal information on a Web site standing alone, while it may be offensive or disturbing to those listed, is protected by the First Amendment. The mere advocacy of the use of force or violence does not remove speech from the protection of the First Amendment. To be a true threat the communication does not need to be directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action.

You may find that a particular statement is a true threat if you find that the statement was made under such circumstances that an ordinary reasonable person who was familiar with the context of the communication would interpret it as an expression of an intent to injure the recipient or injure another person.

Of course, this is the way a US jury was instructed so it would not necessarily hold for Canada; but this verdict demonstrates clearly that there are bounds on speech freedoms.

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