Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

Watts v. United States (1969) – True-Threat decision

1st Amendment

U.S. Supreme Court

Watts v. United States, 394 U.S. 705 (1969)

Watts v. United States

No. 1107, Misc.

Decided April 21, 1969

394 U.S. 705


Reversed and remanded. Petitioning party received a favorable disposition.


Watts was convicted of violating a 1917 statute prohibiting 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”. During a public rally near the Washington Monument, Watts, 18, joined a small group of fellow teens and adolescents to discuss police brutality. He told the others he had been drafted and had to report the following Monday. He reportedly said, “If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.” He added, “They are not going to make me kill my black brothers.” A jury found Watts had committed a felony by knowingly and willfully threatening the President. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed by a two-to-one vote.

Importance of Case

The petitioner’s speech was at most a crude statement of political opposition to the President and did not amount to a threat. A statute criminalizing speech must be weighed against the First Amendment and speech that is truly a threat must be distinguished from protected speech.


Petitioner’s remark during political debate at small public gathering that, if inducted into Army (which he vowed would never occur) and made to carry a rifle “the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.,” held to be crude political hyperbole which, in light of its context and conditional nature, did not constitute a knowing and willful threat against the President within the coverage of 18 U.S.C. § 871(a).

Certiorari granted; 131 U.S.App.D.C. 125, 402 F.2d 676, reversed and remanded.



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