Watts v. United States

Facts of the Case

During a public rally on the Washington Monument grounds, defendant Watts, an 18-year-old boy, joined a gathering scheduled to discuss police brutality. When one member of the group suggested that the young people present should get more education before expressing their views, the defendant responded: They always holler at us to get an education. And now I have already received my draft classification as I-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 that statement, the defendant was convicted, in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, of violating a federal statute making it a felony to knowingly and wilfully threaten the President. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed.

Question

Was Watt’s statement a legitimate threat within the meaning of the statute?

CONCLUSION

No. In a per curiam opinion, the Court concluded, without hearing arguments, that Watts’ statement was political hyperbole. The Court noted, The language of the political arena… is often vituperative, abusive, and inexact. Thus, considering the context, and regarding the expressly conditional nature of the statement and the reaction of the listeners, the Court ruled that Watts’ statement was not a true threat.

Case Information

  • Citation: 394 US 705 (1969)
  • Decided Apr 21, 1969