By John Kruzel
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out the stalking conviction of a Colorado man who claimed that thousands of unwanted Facebook messages he sent to a female musician were protected speech under the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
The 7-2 decision vacated a lower court’s ruling that Billy Counterman’s messages to Denver singer-songwriter Coles Whalen were excluded from First Amendment protections for freedom of speech.
Counterman was found guilty in a 2017 trial and sentenced to 4-1/2 years in prison. He challenged his stalking conviction after a state court ruled that his messages to Whalen constituted a true threat, which the Supreme Court has said is excluded from First Amendment protections. Counterman had a history of making violent threats to women and was on supervised release from one such federal conviction during the two years he continuously messaged Whalen.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from enacting laws “abridging the freedom of speech,” but the Supreme Court has decided that the provision does not protect true threats.
The Colorado stalking law did not require proof of a speaker’s subjective intent to intimidate. Rather, Counterman was convicted based on a showing that his messages would cause a “reasonable person” serious distress – known as an “objective” legal standard.
Counterman contended that prosecutors should be required to prove a speaker’s specific intent to threaten before stripping offending speech of its constitutionally protected status.
Whalen has described the messages from Counterman, which came to her over a two-year span beginning in 2014, as life-threatening and life-altering. Whalen has said Counterman sent thousands of messages to her personal and public Facebook accounts, some of which suggested he had seen her in public.
She never responded to Counterman during this time and blocked his Facebook account at least four times, prompting him to continue messaging her from other platforms or through new Facebook accounts he created.
Among Counterman’s communications to Whalen were messages that read: “Was that you in the white Jeep?” and “You’re not being good for human relations. Die. Don’t need you.” Others used expletives.
Whalen said the messages eventually left her paralyzed with fear and anxiety, causing her to cancel shows and turn down career opportunities, and leading her to apply for a concealed handgun permit and sleep with a light on.
Whalen in 2016 discussed her concern about the messages with a family member, who alerted law enforcement. Colorado prosecutors later that year charged Counterman with stalking, which state law defines in part as communication that “would cause a reasonable person to suffer serious emotional distress.”
Counterman, citing mental illness and delusions, argued that his statements were never intended to be threatening and were thus protected speech.
A trial court denied Counterman’s First Amendment defense and a jury convicted him. His appeal was rejected by the Colorado Court of Appeals. Colorado’s top court declined to review the case.
President Joe Biden’s administration backed Colorado in the case.
(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)