Are All Threats Created Equal?

I saw this piece from the Louisville Courier Journal today about an investigation of a Louisville woman resulting from a  tweet she’d sent.  The tweet said “If someone was cruel enough to assassinate MLK, maybe someone will be kind enough to assassinate Trump #bekind#trump#lovetrumpshate.”  The investigation centers around whether the tweet violated a federal statute that makes it a crime to threaten the president.

Not surprisingly, one online commenter on the story wondered whether Madonna would be investigated.  Madonna made this comment at the Women’s March last weekend: “Yes, I’m angry. Yes I’m outraged.  Yes, I’ve thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.  But I know that won’t change anything.”    In response, former Celebrity Apprentice contestant and current Trump supporter Piers Morgan tweeted:  “Madonna just said she wants to bomb the White House.  Any ordinary person who said that would be arrested, charged & jailed.”

So, any chance either of these two will be charged?  Not likely.  Here’s a thoughtful piece from Professor Eugene Volkh explaining why.  The bottom line is that the comment has to be considered in context, and courts typically don’t consider “political hyperbole” — even hyperbole that references violence – as a true threat.

Trump supporters may question the logic of that ruling, but the consequence of living in a country that prizes free speech is that offensive speech is protected.