Legal Principle at Issue
Did petitioner's statement warrant prosecution under a statute criminalizing threats against the President of the United States, or were his statement protected under the First Amendment?
Reversed and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.
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.
Importance of Case
The petitioner’s speech was at most a crude statement of political opposition to the President and did not amount to a threat. A statute criminalizing speech must be weighed against the First Amendment and speech that is truly a threat must be distinguished from protected speech.