Is it illegal to say you want to kill the President?

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In the United States, expressing a desire to harm or kill the President is a matter taken extremely seriously under federal law. This article delves into the legal ramifications of making threats against the President, distinguishing between free speech and criminal actions under the U.S. Code.

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Federal Law on Threatening the President

Under 18 U.S.C. § 871, it is a federal felony to knowingly and willfully make a threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States. This law has been in place since 1917 and applies regardless of the communicator’s intent to actually carry out the threat.

United States Code, Title 18, Section 871: “Whoever knowingly and willfully deposits in any post office or any authorized depository for mail matter, to be sent or delivered by the Postal Service or by any other means or instrumentality of interstate or foreign commerce, or knowingly causes to be delivered by mail according to the direction thereon, or at the place at which it is directed to be delivered by the person to whom it is addressed, any communication containing any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States, the President-elect, the Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President of the United States, or the Vice President-elect, or knowingly and willfully otherwise makes any such threat against the President, President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

Scope of the Law: The statute covers not only direct threats but also those implied in seemingly innocent forms, including jokes or offhand comments, if they can be interpreted as serious.

Historical Context and Enforcement

The law was enacted during a time of heightened concern about the safety of national leaders, following several high-profile assassinations. It reflects the government’s commitment to protecting the highest office in the land.

Enforcement: Cases involving threats against the President are typically investigated by the Secret Service. The agency takes every threat seriously and has the discretion to determine whether a statement constitutes a true threat.

To be considered a threat under 18 U.S.C. § 871, the statement must meet certain criteria:

  • Objective Test: Would a reasonable person interpret the statement as a serious expression of intent to harm or kill the President?
  • Subjective Component: Was the threat made with some degree of intent, seriousness, or purpose?

Courts have consistently ruled that mere political hyperbole or offensive language not intended as a threat is protected under the First Amendment. However, when a statement crosses the line into a real threat, it loses constitutional protection.

Consequences of Making a Threat

The penalties for threatening the President are severe:

  • Imprisonment: Individuals convicted under this statute can face substantial prison time, often up to 5 years.
  • Fines: Monetary penalties can also be imposed.
  • Long-Term Repercussions: Beyond legal penalties, individuals may face long-term consequences such as difficulties in employment, loss of professional licenses, and other social stigmas.

Recent years have seen debates over the balance between free speech and security, especially with the rise of social media, where offhand comments can spread widely and quickly. Legal scholars and civil rights advocates frequently discuss the implications of this law on free speech.

Conclusion

While the First Amendment protects free speech, explicitly stating a desire to kill or harm the President of the United States is illegal and subject to serious federal penalties. It is important for all citizens to be aware of the boundaries of lawful expression, especially in an era where digital communications can amplify and spread personal statements widely.

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