This Court Decision Could Impact What Jokes You Can Tell

This Court Decision Could Impact What Jokes You Can Tell

( – The Supreme Court is due to hear a case that seems to deal with an obscure legal technicality — but one that could blow a huge hole in our First Amendment protections. The case centers on whether intent is important in punishing threats, but it could have much wider implications. If SCOTUS gets this one wrong, free speech might grow a lot of new limits.

On April 19, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Counterman v Colorado. This case dates back to 2014 when Billy Raymond Counterman started harassing a local musician on Facebook. First, he messaged her. Then he called her “arrogant” when she didn’t respond. Finally, he sent her a string of abusive messages, including telling her to “F**k off permanently” and “Die,” as well as implying that he was watching her by asking, “Was that you in the white Jeep?” He kept this up for two years until, in 2017, he was convicted of making threatening statements.

Now Counterman’s appeal has reached the Supreme Court. He claims that when he told his victim to die, he didn’t actually mean it as a threat and says the perpetrator’s intent and mental state should be considered when evaluating threats, not how the victim felt about it. He’s being backed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which says making threats without actually intending to carry them out should be protected by the First Amendment.

Gabe Walters, an attorney with FIRE, says if the Court rejects Counterman’s appeal, it will mean potential punishments for anyone who says things “politically or socially unpopular” or even makes the wrong kind of joke. He cited the example of a student who said she would blow up her university’s nuclear reactor if the college football team lost its next game.

Meanwhile, some legal experts argue that the Counterman case isn’t really about free speech at all — it’s about stalking. This is a complex case that could have a massive impact. The Supreme Court will have to balance safety against rights in making its decision.

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