WATTS v. UNITED STATES
On August 27, 1966 while attending a protest and discussing police brutality, eighteen-year-old Robert Watts stated, "I have already received my draft classification as 1-A and I have got to report for my physical this Monday coming. I am not going. If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J." A federal statute makes it a crime to "knowingly and willfully" threaten the life of the President. Watts was arrested, tried, and convicted in federal court for violating this statute. Watts argued the statement "did not constitute a 'threat' within the language of the statute." On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected this argument, finding that the statement violated the statute even if Watts had no intention of carrying out his threat, and affirmed the lower court's judgment.
Was Watt's statement a legitimate threat within the meaning of the statute?
Legal provision: 18 U.S.C. 871
No. In a per curiam opinion, the Court concluded, without hearing arguments, that Watts' statement was "political hyperbole". The Court noted, "The language of the political arena… is often vituperative, abusive, and inexact." Thus, considering the "context, and regarding the expressly conditional nature of the statement and the reaction of the listeners," the Court ruled that Watts' statement was not a true threat.