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In Virginia v. Black (2003), the Supreme Court defined true threats as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”

Opinions & Commentaries

Watts was convicted of violating a 1917 statute prohibiting any person from "knowingly and willfully ... [making] any threat to take the life of or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States". During a public rally near the Washington Monument, Watts, 18, joined a small group of fellow teens and adolescents to discuss police brutality. He told the others he had been drafted and had to report the following Monday. He reportedly said, “If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” He added, “They are not going to make me kill my black brothers.” A jury found Watts had committed a felony by knowingly and willfully threatening the President. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed by a two-to-one vote.


This case arose out of two separate cross-burning incidents. In May 1998, Richard J. Elliott and Jonathan O’Mara burned a cross in the yard of James Jubilee, Elliott’s black neighbor. In August 1998, Barry Elton Black led a Ku Klux Klan rally on private property with the consent of the property’s owner. Black burned a cross at the rally, which frightened a relative of the property owner who watched from a nearby house. Prosecutors charged all three men with violating Virginia’s cross-burning statute, which provides: “It shall be unlawful for any person or persons, with the intent of intimidating any person or group of persons, to burn, or to cause to be burned, a cross on the property of another, a highway or other public place.” All three men lost their criminal cases before the trial court. The court of appeals affirmed the convictions of the three men in two separate cases. The appeals court reasoned that the statute only proscribes true threats, a category of expression not protected by the First Amendment. The appeals court also determined that the burning of the cross is a form of fighting words, another category of speech not protected by the First Amendment. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court consolidated the two cases. In a 4-3 decision, the state supreme court reversed, finding the statute violated the First Amendment. The majority reasoned that the statute regulated speech based on hostility to the underlying message of cross burning.