“If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment,” the U.S. Supreme Court said in Texas v Johnson (1989), “it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” What that principle means in practice is that all sorts of vile and despicable speech—including hate speech—are constitutionally protected.
But the Court has also said that the First Amendment has its limits. One of them involves “true threats” of violence, which the Court in Virginia v. Black (2003) defined as “those 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.” The First Amendment, the Court held, “permits” the government “to ban a ‘true threat.'”
Deciding what actually counts as a “true threat” is not such an easy task, however, as the Supreme Court seems to recognize. Last week, the Court agreed to hear arguments in Counterman v. Colorado, which asks, in the question presented to the Court, “whether, to establish that a statement is a ‘true threat’ unprotected by the First Amendment, the government must show that the speaker subjectively knew or intended the threatening nature of the statement, or whether it is enough to show that an objective ‘reasonable person’ would regard the statement as a threat of violence.”