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Threats can be subtle or overt. Actor Justus D. Barnes, in The Great Train Robbery

A threat is a communicated intent to inflict harm or loss on another person.[1][2] Intimidation is widely observed in animal behavior (particularly in a ritualized form) chiefly in order to avoid the unnecessary physical violence that can lead to physical damage or the death of both conflicting parties. A threat is considered an act of coercion.

Some of the more common types of threats forbidden by law are those made with an intent to obtain a monetary advantage or to compel a person to act against his or her will. In most US states, it is an offense to threaten to (1) use a deadly weapon on another person; (2) injure another's person or property; or (3) injure another's reputation.[3]



In Brazil, the crime of threatening someone, defined as a threat to cause unjust and grave harm, is punishable by a fine or three months to one year in prison, as described in the Brazilian Penal Code, article 147. Brazilian [jurisprudence] does not treat as a crime a threat that was proffered in a heated discussion.


The German Strafgesetzbuch § 241 punishes the crime of threat with a prison term for up to one year or a fine. Even if someone, against his better judgment, feigns to another person that the realization of a serious criminal offense directed against him or a person close to him is imminent, shall be similarly punished.[4]

United States[edit]

In the United States, federal law criminalizes certain true threats transmitted via the U.S. mail[5] or in interstate commerce. It also criminalizes threatening the government officials of the United States. Some U.S. states criminalize cyberbullying. Threats of bodily harm are called assault.'

State of Texas[edit]

In the state of Texas, it is not necessary that the person threatened actually perceive a threat for a threat to exist for legal purposes.[6][7]

True threat[edit]

A true threat is a threatening communication that can be prosecuted under the law. It is distinct from a threat that is made in jest. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that true threats are not protected under the U.S. Constitution based on three justifications: preventing fear, preventing the disruption that follows from that fear, and diminishing the likelihood that the threatened violence will occur.[8] There is some concern that even satirical speech could be regarded as a "true threat" due to concern over terrorism.[9]

The true threat doctrine was established in the 1969 Supreme Court case Watts v. United States.[10] In that case, an eighteen-year-old male was convicted in a Washington, D.C. District Court for violating a statute prohibiting persons from knowingly and willfully making threats to harm or kill the President of the United States.[10] The conviction was based on a statement made by Watts, in which he said, "[i]f they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J."[10] Watts appealed, leading to the Supreme Court finding the statute constitutional on its face, but reversing the conviction of Watts.

In reviewing the lower court's analysis of the case, the Court noted that "a threat must be distinguished from what is constitutionally protected speech."[10] The Court recognized that "uninhibited, robust, and wideopen" political debate can at times be characterized by "vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." In light of the context of Watts' statement - and the laughter that it received from the crowd - the Court found that it was more "a kind of very crude offensive method of stating a political opposition to the President" than a "true threat." [10] In so holding, the Court established that there is a "true threat" exception to protected speech, but also that the statement must be viewed in its context and distinguished from protected hyperbole. The opinion, however, stopped short of defining precisely what constituted a "true threat." [10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "threat". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ "threat". Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  3. ^ Phelps and Lehman, Shirelle and Jeffrey (2005). West's Encyclopedia of American Law. Detroit: Gale Virtual Reference Library. p. 27.
  4. ^ "Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch, StGB)". Retrieved April 19, 2014.
  5. ^ 18 U.S.C. § 876
  6. ^ Olivias v. State of Texas, 203 S.W. 3d 341 (Tex. Crim. App. 2006) Citing McGowan v. State of Texas, 664 S.W. 2d 355 at 357 (Tex. Crim. App. 1984).
  7. ^ 2 Wayne R. LaFave, Substantive Criminal Law §16.3(b) at 568 (2d ed. 2003).
  8. ^ Toward an Improved True Threat Doctrine for Student Speakers; Stanner, Andrew P., 81, N.Y.U. L. Rev., 2006, p. 385
  9. ^ Gilbert, Lauren (2003–2004), Mocking George: Political Satire as True Threat in the Age of Global Terrorism, 58, U. Miami L. Rev., p. 843
  10. ^ a b c d e f Is the True Threats Doctrine Threatening the First Amendment? Planned Parenthood of the Columbia/Willamette, Inc. v. American Coalition of Life Activists Signals the Need To Remedy an Inadequate Doctrine; Weiss, Lori, 72, Fordham L. Rev., 2004, p. 1283