Counterman v. Colorado, No. 22-138. Certiorari granted January 13, 2023.
The Supreme Court has decided to review a question left unanswered in Elonis v. United States, No. 13-983, 575 U.S. 723 (2015). If “true threats” are not protected by the First Amendment, then what, if any, state of mind must be present to remove such protections and thereby permit prosecution for stalking or other speech-related matters.
According to petitioner Counterman, confusion surrounding the standard that existed pre-Elonis has, consistently with a prediction from Justice Alito, exploded post-Elonis, leaving nine federal circuits and eighteen states/jurisdictions requiring objectivity based on what a reasonable hearer would think of the words, with two federal circuits and four states demanding proof that the speaker in question intended a threat. Another state requires knowledge and two require recklessness. Nine circuits include states applying conflicting standards.
Colorado illustrates the state-federal conflict in this case. Petitioner was convicted in state court only with reference to objective measures. Had he been tried in federal court, Counterman’s state of mind – whether he intended a treat – would have been critical to conviction.
The abandonment of any state of mind requirement for speech crimes would, petitioner argues, abandon the First Amendment.
Petitioner was arrested and charged with stalking after Facebook exchanges caused discomfort in the state’s witness, and he was convicted without reference to whether he was aware that he knew he would cause distress, only that he knew he was sending a message.
Counterman has sought review not only because of the contortions and conflicts among state and federal courts but also because criminal law, which seeks to curb malevolent will, stands in contrast to First Amendment protections, which assure liberty to speak in many ways including unpleasant ways, without fear of criminal prosecution.
Employing an objective standard – what a hearer, not a speaker, would think – reduces crime to negligence and conflicts with the First amendment as the low standard could criminalize otherwise innocuous, even if offensive, speech.
The law ought rarely prosecute ‘accidental’ crimes and never countenance ‘accidental’ speech crimes. The latter from the outset would chill otherwise permissible speech. A state of mind requirement permits a speaker to speak without fear that his words will result in arrest and confinement.
Culpability in the absence of context, and likely imposed during a cold reading, cannot be sustained where the imposition of criminal liability would erode the speech protections of ordinary citizens.
Colorado has strenuously object to granting certiorari, but its arguments have not persuaded the Court at this juncture. Colorado points to Counterman’s admission that his conduct violated the stalking statute. The presence of a speech component in a conduct-focused crime does not permit a clear constitutional analysis.
Colorado has argued that its view comports with Supreme Court precedent which permits conviction on the basis of conduct.
The Colorado court’s application of a context driven, multi factor objective analysis of petitioners’ statements permits assessment of stalking while leaving protected speech undisturbed, the state has argued.
Colorado has argued that First Amendment protections do not extend only to speakers who would be robbed of speech protections in the absence of requiring evidence of an accused subjective mental state. Colorado has argued that contextual analysis protects speech while permitting an objective view of threatening acts and speech.
No briefing schedule has been issued and no oral argument date set.
Counterman Petition for Certiorari
Counterman Brief in Opposition
Counterman Reply Brief for Petitioner
Counterman Amicus Cato Institute