Freedom of Speech and True Threats

86 Pages Posted: 29 May 2001

See all articles by Jennifer E. Rothman

Jennifer E. Rothman

University of Pennsylvania Law School; Yale Information Society Project, Yale Law School


This article proposes a new test for determining what is a true threat - speech not protected by the First Amendment. Despite the importance of the true threats exception to the First Amendment, this is an underexplored area of constitutional law.

Even though the Supreme Court has made clear that true threats are punishable, it has not clearly defined what speech constitutes a true threat. To make this determination circuit courts have adopted inconsistent and inadequate tests including a reasonable listener test. The Supreme Court has never granted certiorari to resolve the issue.

The law surrounding threats has gained recent attention in two cases involving alleged threats conveyed over the internet: the Nuremberg Files case and the Jake Baker case. A Ninth Circuit decision (currently being considered for en banc review) recently reversed the district court decision in the Nuremberg Files case and its analysis highlights the circuit court confusion on what constitutes a true threat.

This article discusses the failings of the current circuit tests, as well as the inadequacy of the alternatives suggested by scholars. This article proposes a new test which adds both an intent prong and an actor prong to the generally accepted reasonable listener test. An extensive test suite of cases demonstrates the efficacy of the proposed test. This article resolves the current confusion and presents a true threats test which provides greater protection for speakers while preserving the rights of potential victims.

Keywords: Threats, freedom of speech, first amendment, Nuremberg Files, Jake Baker, Claiborne hardware, Watts

JEL Classification: K1, K3, K10, K14, K19, K30, K39, K42

Suggested Citation

Rothman, Jennifer E., Freedom of Speech and True Threats. Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 25, No. 1, p. 283, Fall 2001, Available at SSRN: or

Jennifer E. Rothman (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Yale Information Society Project, Yale Law School ( email )

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