Under the First Amendment, the “true threats” doctrine holds that allegedly threatening speech cannot be punished unless the government can prove that the speaker meant to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual. 

In July 2016, racial tension over unjustified police violence against young black men was at an apex, when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were fatally shot by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota, respectively. In a moment of anger, an African American man named Nheru Littleton, a military veteran and factory worker in Detroit, posted the following statement on his Facebook page: “All lives won’t matter until black lives matter! Kill all white cops!”  When the police investigated, Mr. Littleton apologized, explained that he had been drinking when he posted the statement, and had no intent to harm anyone. 

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy declined to press charges, explaining that the statement was very offensive but was protected by the First Amendment. In a highly unusual move Attorney General Bill Schuette overruled Worthy and directed his office to prosecute Littleton for “terrorist threats,” a felony offense that carries up to 20 years in prison. 

In February 2017, the ACLU of Michigan filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Wayne County Circuit Court in support of Littleton’s motion to dismiss the criminal prosecution. We argued that although Mr. Littleton’s statement was offensive and upsetting, it was political speech and was not a “true threat.” The judge disagreed and scheduled the case for trial. Littleton appealed, and in May 2017, we filed another friend-of-the-court brief in the Michigan Supreme Court. 

After receiving our brief, the Supreme Court put Littleton’s trial on hold while it considered our First Amendment arguments. However, in October 2017 the Supreme Court declined to take further action on the case. Mr. Littleton pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten months in jail. 

(People v. Littleton; ACLU Attorney Dan Korobkin.)

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Defending liberty

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