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Is It Illegal to Threaten Someone Online?

By George Khoury, Esq. | Last updated on

Since the assimilation of social media into everyday life became nearly unavoidable, lawmakers have been working to strengthen the laws prohibiting cyberbullying, cybercrime, and online threats. Potentially in spite of the Supreme Court ruling in 2014 that reversed the conviction of a man who posted his own original rap lyrics about his fantasy of killing his wife on social media, state's around the country continue to embrace new laws that create for a safer, less hostile online environment.

The Supreme Court's stance on online threats seems to land more in favor of characterizing even the most despicable speech as protected under the first amendment. Despite the Supreme Court's stance that the online harasser's intent matters, states can still regulate and prosecute people they believe have made credible online threats.

Context Matters

When it comes to evaluating whether an online threat is illegal or not, the context is highly relevant. If the threat is clearly made in a way that makes it appear to be a joke, satirical, or sarcastic, then it probably won't be considered a threat. However, if the language appears to be serious, then it must be looked at more closely to determine whether it is legal or not.

Also, context changes with the times. When a recent school shooting is still fresh in the news, making a joke about it, while you may think it's just in poor taste, could very well be viewed by others as a threat, and that can get you arrested.

What Makes an Online Threat Illegal?

While some states don't have specific laws about online threats, all have laws against making criminal threats and bullying. Determining which online threats are illegal requires looking at the individual characteristics of each threat. If an online threat would rise to the same level as an in-person, or telephonic, criminal threat, then the online threat will likely be considered illegal. Usual considerations include:

  • Who the threat is directed to?
  • What is being threatened?
  • Who is making the threat?
  • Is the threat credible?
  • What did the speaker really mean or intend?

If the threat is directed at a specific person, with a specific threat of harm, from an easily identifiable source, and appears credible, it is likely the threat will be considered illegal. When the threat does not target an easily identifiable person or group, or does not specify a type of harm, or is just terminally vague (i.e. "Chicago Cubs fans are going to get it"), this is not likely to rise to the level of a criminal threat. However, as the 2014 Supreme Court decision advised, a speaker's intent can make all the difference in determining whether a post is considered a threat or protected expression.

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