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Pretty much everyone knows by now that you can't threaten to kill the president. It would also seem that pretty much everyone thinks they're anonymous on Twitter, or that Twitter isn't real life. How else to explain the dozens of assassination threats that popped up on Twitter following Donald Trump's victory?
The past year on the campaign trail has been filled with bombastic rhetoric, much of it coming from President-elect Trump himself. That vitriol has spilled over following Election Day, with many upset citizens taking their threats to social media. In fact, the hashtag #AssassinateTrump was trending yesterday on Twitter (although it appears most uses were Trump supporters pointing out that assassination threats are illegal).
Nicole Mainor, a spokesperson for the Secret Service, declined to address the Twitter threats directly, saying only, "The Secret Service does not provide information regarding protective services." But at least one Twitter user got a surprise visit from federal agents. Eli Martinez, who tweeted "I think I have to kill Trump. None of y'all gon [sic] do it, I have to take measures into my own hands," awoke to a Secret Service interrogation in his home last week.
Despite what you may have heard about social media, not all of your posts are protected under the First Amendment. There are limits on free speech, and making credible threats is one form of prohibited speech. Normally, deciding whether speech is a credible threat is entirely subjective, and requires the person threatened to reasonably fear actual harm.
But federal law makes it a felony offense to knowingly and willfully convey communication that contains "any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States," and the statute does not require a subjective fear of harm -- just making the threat, on Twitter or elsewhere, is enough to make it illegal. And threatening a sitting or elected president can get you up to five years in prison. And judging from Martinez's experience, federal agents are happy to make house calls.