Ever since the Constitution was written, freedom of speech has been a guaranteed right granted to all Americans. As times are changing, the question of where hate speech fits into this right to speak freely has heavily been debated. Hate speech is defined by the American Bar Association as speech that offends, threatens or insults groups based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability or other traits. The word used in this definition, threats, is one that alarms many readers as they believe dangerous threats should not be protected by laws and should be taken seriously by police and the court of law. This being said, is hate speech protected by the first amendment and if so, when should hate speech no longer be protected under law? In the United States Supreme Court case, Elonis vs U.S. (2014), saw Anthony Elonis threatening his ex-wife, co-workers, a kindergarten class, a FBI agent and the local police via Facebook. After a long court process, Elonis was sentenced to forty-four months in prison with three years of supervision upon his release. During the trials, it was argued that the threats were not “true threats” and that it was a violation of the first amendment if he were to be imprisoned. The court ultimately ruled that the threats were an act of danger and was convicted of four out of the five counts. This displays the difference of saying strongly worded opinions against different people and threatening them. In this particular case, threats were not protected by the first amendment due to the fact that people’s lives were targeted through the threats.
On the other end of this topic of threats versus hate speech, the Supreme Court Case of Brandenburg v Ohio (1969) favored on the side of the person being charged for making threats. Brandenburg was an active member of the KKK in Ohio and was arrested for making threats that implied he was calling for an overthrow of the government. Once the case got all the way to the Supreme Court, it was ruled that no violent or illegal actions followed the threat and that the Ohio Court violated Brandenburg’s right to freedom of speech granted by the first amendment. The idea of threats versus hate speech is still heavily debated nearly 50 years after this case came to a close as the definition of threats and hate speech still do not have a clear separation. Overall, the first amendment protects Americans through the freedom of speech, but the debate on hate speech versus threats questions how the extent of this freedom of speech.
Through court cases and the definitions of hate speech, it can be determined that threats are protected by the first amendment unless someone’s life is in danger or the threat sparks violence or crimes being committed.
“ABA Division For Public Education: Students: Debating The “Mighty Constitutional Opposites”: Hate Speech Debate”. Americanbar.Org, 2018, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/public_education/initiatives_awards/students_in_action/debate_hate.html. Accessed 25 Sept 2018.
“Brandenburg V. Ohio”. Oyez, 2018, https://www.oyez.org/cases/1968/492. Accessed 25 Sept 2018.
“Facts And Case Summary – Elonis V. U.S.”. United States Courts, 2018, http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-elonis-v-us. Accessed 25 Sept 2018.
“What Is THREAT? Definition Of THREAT (Black’s Law Dictionary)”. The Law Dictionary, 2018, https://thelawdictionary.org/threat/. Accessed 25 Sept 2018.
“6 Major US Supreme Court Hate Speech Cases”. Thoughtco, 2018, https://www.thoughtco.com/hate-speech-cases-721215. Accessed 25 Sept 2018.