Arguing with Supreme Court opinions, as one does — in this case Counterman v. Colorado. Now, let me be quick to say that the comment I am making above is really irrelevant to the case, because almost nothing in the opinion or the dissent is about what Counterman did or didn’t do — it’s almost exclusively an in-house debate about what criteria should be used to determine whether given speech-acts are or are nor protected by the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Basically, the judgment of the Court could be summarized thus: “Hey Colorado, you went after Counterman by claiming that he was making ‘true threats’ and further arguing that one should use a reasonable-person standard to decide what makes something a true threat, but you went about it all wrong. The guy may well be guilty of something, but the particular argument you made against him is inconsistent with First Amendment protections, so we’re going to vacate your decision and send it back to you. Please do better in the future.” So now Colorado has to decide whether to try Counterman again using a different set of standards.
I think this decision will be really consequential in the long term. For now just a handful of thoughts:
- Kagan’s opinion is poorly-reasoned and — this is really surprising, because she’s usually the Court’s most elegant stylist — poorly written. It’s a tired opinion: when she acknowledges Barrett’s dissent she claims that one argument “falls flat” without saying why it falls flat, and claims that one case Barrett invokes is a “poor analog” without saying why it’s a poor analog.
- I think this may be because the opinion simply tries to do too much. (This is Sotomayor’s complaint in her partial concurrence: You could have just stopped after declaring the “recklessness” standard the proper one to apply here.) Kagan gets deep into the weeds by looking at several different standards that might be applied in different contexts to determine what forms of speech are unprotected by the First Amendment. Barrett’s dissent also gets into those weeds, but invokes different standards than the ones that Kagan prefers. After a while the Counterman case altogether disappears from view.
- I don’t think the majority opinion is intended to empower stalkers, harassers, and trolls, but that’s exactly what it will do. This is certainly Barrett’s view: “The Court’s decision thus sweeps much further than it lets on.” And this will lead to more bad behavior, especially online, and future legal cases that …
- … the Court’s decision here will not help to decide. The most important conclusion to be drawn from this opinion is that the Supreme Court’s free-speech jurisprudence is a total mess. Kagan clearly wants to use Counterman in order to sort through the complexity of previous cases and bring order to the jurisprudential record. But there is no order in the jurisprudential record, and in the midst of the confusion a great many bad actors are going to think themselves free to be as nasty as they want to be.
- The primary losers here will therefore be women — women like Coles Whalen, whose experience of relentless harassment by Billy Counterman was the origin of this case. And for what it’s worth, I agree with Barrett that this is an unnecessary loss:
The bottom line is this: Counterman communicated true threats, which, everyone agrees, lie outside the bounds of the First Amendment’s protection.” Ante, at 4. He knew what the words meant. Those threats caused the victim to fear for her life, and they “upended her daily existence.” Ante, at 2. Nonetheless, the Court concludes that Counterman can prevail on a First Amendment defense. Nothing in the Constitution compels that result. I respectfully dissent.