Law enforcement officials in Orange Park, Florida, told WJAX-TV that several citizens have been spotted over the last two years holding signs that read "Kill a Cop" or variations thereof — and that there's nothing authorities can do about it.
What are the details?
According to WJAX, several men have been spotted near a neighborhood school holding the signs. Eyewitness Janice Gibson told the network that she feels the signs are akin to terrorism.
"People need to know about this," Gibson told WJAX. "It's in my backyard. To me, that's not freedom of speech. That's like a terrorism."
Clay County Sheriff's Office told the network that this has been going on for about two years, with several people holding similar signs, but there's nothing they can legally do about it.
According to Dale Carson, law and safety expert for WJAX, law enforcement officials have few options because the signs are protected by the First Amendment.
Paulson, who tested the First Amendment's applicability to those who made threats of violence against law enforcement officials in the days after 12 Dallas officers were shot, said, “We live in a country in which a lot of people say outrageous things, and sometimes they are vaguely threatening."
Paulson told the Times that prosecutors specifically look for credible "true threats" rather than just generalized threats.
"The key question is whether the threat is directed toward a specific individual and if it is meant to frighten someone," Paulson explained. "It can’t be hyperbole. For something to be a true threat, it has to be clearly targeted and imminent so that someone learning of the threat would be reasonably concerned for their safety."
Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, also told the Times that there is a difference between threatening someone specifically and explicitly and making generalized threats.
"You can say a lot of things to people that is protected, but when you threaten someone explicitly, this is when you have to start taking it seriously," Haberfeld told the Times. "When it becomes specific, like 'I know where you live' or 'I know where your child goes to school,' it generates a more serious reaction."
In the case of Elonis v. United States, Pennsylvania man Anthony Elonis was convicted for posting what were perceived to be threats on social media. These threats of violence were made against his estranged wife, co-workers, police, FBI agents, and children at a nearby elementary school.
The federal law, under which Elonis was convicted, prohibited the communication of "any threat to injure the person of another."
Elonis was sentenced to 44 months in prison.
A district court told the jury that threats are only considered "true threats" — which fall outside of the scope of the First Amendment — when there is "an objective intent to threaten."
Elonis appealed the decision and argued that "true threats" require "a subjective intent to threaten." He argued that his comments on social media were not "true threats," and asserted that he was an aspiring rap artist and his comments were a form of artistic expression.
Elonis maintained that though those on the receiving ends of his comments may have perceived the statements as threats, he had no actual intent of harming anyone despite his sentiments.
After several appeals, the Supreme Court eventually agreed to hear Elonis' case, and ultimately reversed and remanded the judgment.