The Georgia Supreme Court has upheld a terroristic threats statute challenged by a Hall County high school student who was charged with making terroristic threats on Facebook.
Devon Major, a Lanier Career Academy student, reportedly posted a threat on the social media site in September 2014 saying, in part, "Lord please save me before o [sic] get the chopper out and make Columbine look childish."
Major challenged his indictment, arguing the statute under which he was charged was unconstitutional because it was vague and overboard in violation of his First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process.
Major was arrested and charged with threatening to commit a crime of violence against another “in reckless disregard of causing such terror” in violation of the former version of Georgia Code § 16-11-37 that was in effect in 2014.
The trial court denied Major's challenge and he asked to appeal to the state Supreme Court; that request was granted.
In his pre-trial appeal, Major argues that the statute punishes protected speech by focusing on the state of mind of the person receiving the threat rather than the state of mind of the speaker, and because recklessness does not require a showing of specific intent, it therefore does not meet the definition of a “true threat.”
The justices disagreed, with Justice Carol Hunstein writing in the unanimous opinion:
“It is well established that recklessness requires a person to act with ‘conscious disregard for the safety of others.’ Therefore, contrary to Major’s assertions, recklessness clearly requires an analysis of the accused’s state of mind at the time of the crime alleged."
“Because former § 16-11-37 (a) requires that a person communicate a threat of violence in a purposeful or reckless manner, both of which are true threats and not protected speech, it does not violate the First Amendment’s right to free speech. Once again, Major alleges that the statute focuses on the listener’s reaction to the communicated threatening language and not the intent of the speaker, muddying the lines of what is, and what is not, constitutionally protected speech,” the opinion said.
The plain language of the statute "prohibits a person from threatening, in a reckless manner, to commit any crime of violence. A person of ordinary intelligence can clearly understand the meaning of threatening to commit any crime of violence.
"We affirm the trial court’s decision upholding the constitutionality of former § 16-11-37 (a) against a vagueness challenge.
Major also argued that his use of "Lord please save me" in his post was therapeutic or religious in nature, and therefore not intended as a threat. However, the opinion said the criminal intent was a question of fact meant for a jury, not for this court. “Based on the evidence in the record before us, we find that the statute has not been unconstitutionally applied to Major.”