Tuesday, August 16, 2011

"I'm Gonna Kill You!"

Are threats permissible under freedom of speech? The law says they are not. Should they be, though?

Here is a quick anecdote to open up the debate. An upset customer calls into work and is extremely unhappy with the service he has received. In the midst of his anger, he threatens to shoot up the whole company. His threat is taken literally, the police are called, and the man is investigated by the authorities. The police find a semi-automatic pistol and a rifle and confiscate both as evidence.

Now, if someone makes a threat--especially against one's life--I think it should be taken seriously. But I don't think one should forfeit other rights they possess because a moment of anger overcame him. In the example above, should the man have to give up any guns he has because the language he used in the threat indicates he will use them? In America, we have the right to keep and bear arms. We also have the right to free speech. Is there a point at which one supersedes the other? If you use a gun to commit murder, that does not take away your right to free speech. So why should the reverse be true?

What if the threat did not involve the use of a weapon? Let's say our exemplar simply screams "I'm gonna kill you!" Is the threat treated the same way? Does the manner in which one threatens make a difference?

Here is another example, and this one is considered protected free speech under the 1st Amendment. A group of anti-war protesters are holding a rally in the capital. The leader of the country continues to fight a war that many feel is unjust. Some of the protesters have pictures of the leader with slashes through them, and others burn effigies of the leader.

The latter example is protected because a leader is considered a symbol of government. But in reality, what is the difference between an angry customer threatening the company he feels did a disservice to him and protesters acting out against a government of which they disapprove? I suppose it all just depends on the party being threatened.

I am more inclined to side with the 1st Amendment, which reads "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech". Call me a traditionalist, but prosecuting threats or the yelling of "FIRE!" in a crowded theater (as the other typically unprotected speech example goes) is an infringement of the 1st Amendment, which clearly states NO LAW. I hope that we never live in the world envisioned in the movie Minority Report, where people are prosecuted for future crimes. Wait until they act, then prosecute the individual.

Speech cannot be a crime.

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