Watts v. United States/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

394 U.S. 705

Watts  v.  United States

 Argued: April 21, 1969. ---

After a jury trial in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, petitioner was convicted of violating a 1917 statute which prohibits any person from 'knowingly and willfully * * * (making) any threat to take the life of or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States * * *.' [*] The incident which led to petitioner's arrest occurred on August 27, 1966, during a public rally on the Washington Monument grounds. The crowd present broke up into small discussion groups and petitioner joined a gathering scheduled to discuss police brutality. Most of those in the group were quite young, either in their teens or early twenties. Petitioner, who himself was 18 years old, entered into the discussion after one member of the group suggested that the young people present should get more education before expressing their views. According to an investigator for the Army Counter Intelligence Corps who was present, petitioner responded: 'They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming. I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.' 'They are not going to make me kill my black brothers.' On the basis of this statement, the jury found that petitioner had committed a felony by knowingly and willfully threatening the President. The United States Court of Appeals for for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed by a two-to-one vote. 131 U.S.App.D.C. 125, 402 F.2d 676 (1968). We reverse.

At the close of the Government's case, petitioner's trial counsel moved for a judgment of acquittal. He contended that there was 'absolutely no evidence on the basis of which the jury would be entitled to find that (petitioner) made a threat against the life of the President.' He stressed the fact that petitioner's sta ement was made during a political debate, that it was expressly made conditional upon an event-induction into the Armed Forces-which petitioner vowed would never occur, and that both petitioner and the crowd laughed after the statement was made. He concluded, 'Now actually what happened here in all this was a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President. What he was saying, he says, I don't want to shoot black people because I don't consider them my enemy, and if they put a rifle in my hand it is the people that put the rifle in my hand, as symbolized by the President, who are my real enemy.' We hold that the trial judge erred in denying this motion.

Certainly the statute under which petitioner was convicted is constitutional on its face. The Nation undoubtedly has a valid, even an overwhelming, interest in protecting the safety of its Chief Executive and in allowing him to perform his duties without interference from threats of physical violence. See H.R.Rep. No. 652, 64th Cong., 1st Sess. (1916). Nevertheless, a statute such as this one, which makes criminal a form of pure speech, must be interpreted with the commands of the First Amendment clearly in mind. What is a threat must be distinguished from what is constitutionally protected speech.

The judges in the Court of Appeals differed over whether or not the 'willfullness' requirement of the statute implied that a defendant must have intended to carry out his 'threat.' Some early cases found the willfullness requirement met if the speaker voluntarily uttered the charged words with 'an apparent determination to carry them into execution.' Ragansky v. United States, 253 F. 643, 645 (C.A.7th Cir. 1918) (emphasis supplied); cf. Pierce v. United States, 365 F.2d 292 (C.A. 10th Cir. 1966). The majority below seemed to agree. Perhaps this interpretation is correct, although we have grave doubts about it. See the dissenting opinion below, 131 U.S.App.D.C., at 135-142, 402 F.2d, at 686-693 (Wright, J.). But whatever the 'willfullness' requirement implies, the statute initially requires the Government to prove a true 'threat.' We do not believe that the kind of political hyperbole indulged in by petitioner fits within that statutory term. For we must interpret the language Congress chose 'against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wideopen, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.' New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270, 84 S.Ct. 710, 721, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964). The language of the political arena, like the language used in labor disputes, see Linn v. United Plant Guard Workers of America, 383 U.S. 53, 58, 86 S.Ct. 657, 15 L.Ed.2d 582 (1966), is often vituperative, abusive, and inexact. We agree with petitioner that his only offense here was 'a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President.' Taken in context, and regarding the expressly conditional nature of the statement and the reaction of the listeners, we do not see how it could be interpreted otherwise.

The motion for leave to proceed in forma pauperis and the petition for a writ of certiorari are granted and the judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed. The case is remanded with instructions that it be returned to the District Court for entry of a judgment of acquittal.

It is so ordered.

Judgment for Court of Appeals reversed and case remanded with instructions.

Mr. Justice STEWART would deny the petition for certiorari.

Mr. Justice WHITE dissents.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).