Supreme Court of The United States

U.S. Supreme Court Clarifies Legal Standard for Threatening Speech in Counterman v. Colorado

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Counterman v. Colorado addressed the longstanding ambiguity surrounding the standards for criminal prosecution based on perceived threats of violence. The Court held that such a prosecution requires proof that the defendant subjectively understood the threatening nature of the statement such that making the statement was at least reckless. This case not only delves deep into First Amendment protections but also has broad implications for online communications and interactions.

In this case, Billy Counterman, the criminal defendant, sent numerous unwelcome messages via Facebook to a local musician, raising questions about the delicate balance between free speech and threatening conduct. After multiple block attempts by the musician, Counterman continued his messages from different accounts, leading the musician to believe she was under surveillance and in potential danger.

Colorado prosecutors charged Counterman solely based on his Facebook interactions, asserting that his messages transcended the bounds of protected speech under the First Amendment. Counterman contended that his messages were not “true threats,” arguing that he lacked a subjective understanding of their threatening nature. The lower courts, relying on an objective reasonableness standard, rejected this assertion, deeming the messages as unlawful threats.

The Supreme Court, however, overturned the lower courts’ decisions, opining that while “true threats of violence” are not shielded by the First Amendment, establishing whether a statement is a true threat necessitates a subjective test. The Court emphasized that an objective standard could potentially stifle legitimate speech. A subjective analysis is therefore crucial to reconcile the tension between safeguarding speech and enabling lawful prosecution for illicit expressions.

The ruling specified the requisite intent prosecutors must establish, decreeing that they must demonstrate that defendants made threatening statements recklessly, by ignoring a substantial risk of their statements being perceived as genuine threats.

Justice Kagan, writing for the majority, acknowledged that the balance the Court struck is an imperfect one. As she explained, “[a]s with any balance, something is lost on both sides: The rule we adopt today is neither the most speech-protective nor the most sensitive to the dangers of true threats. But in declining one of those two alternative paths,” she continued, “something more important is gained: Not ‘having it all’ — because that is impossible — but having much of what is important on both sides of the scale.”

This alert serves as a general summary and does not constitute legal guidance. Please contact us with any specific questions.

Fraser Trebilcock attorney Paula Spicer

Paula Spicer is an attorney with Fraser Trebilcock with expertise in family law, juvenile justice law, mental health law, neurological disorders, and specialized “state of mind” defenses in criminal law. You can reach her at (517) 377-0823 or at