A charge of harassment can punish speech, raising First Amendment issues. When the state charges a person with harassment under Washington criminal law, it has to prove the defendant’s statements were not protected speech. One way to do this is to show that the words constituted a “true threat.” A true threat is not hyperbole or a joke, but a serious threat. Courts do not consider what the speaker intended. Instead, they look at whether a reasonable person would foresee the statement being interpreted as intent to physically harm someone. The court considers this question in the context of the actual intended audience. Courts may consider whether there was a specific plan to harm, the tone of the message, and whether it was repeated to multiple audiences.
In a recent case, a 17-year-old defendant successfully challenged her adjudication of guilt on a harassment charge. During an argument with her mother, the defendant texted her friends. In one text, she stated “Bet imma get her killed [. . .]” She texted another friend, “Imma [expletive] kill this [expletive].”
The mother subsequently looked in the phone and found the texts. She also found violent comments the defendant made about another person. The mother changed the locks on the house and slept with a knife. She showed screen shots of the messages to the police.