Spoken or written words tending to intimidate or menace others.
Statutes in a number of jurisdictions prohibit the use of threats and unlawful communications by any person. Some of the more common types of threats forbidden by law are those made with an intent to obtain a pecuniary advantage or to compel a person to act against his or her will. In all 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.
It is a federal offense to threaten to harm the president or to use the mail to transmit threatening communications. These laws must be balanced against first amendment rights.
Unlawful communications include, among other things, the use of threats to prevent another from engaging in a lawful occupation and writing libelous letters or letters that tend to provoke a breach of the peace. The use of intimidation for purposes of collecting an unpaid debt has been held to constitute an unlawful communication but might be prosecuted as extortion.
A mere threat that does not cause any harm is generally not actionable. When combined with apparently imminent bodily harm, however, a threat is an assault for which the offender might be subject to civil or criminal liability. In most jurisdictions, a plaintiff can recover damages for the intentional infliction of severe mental or emotional suffering caused by threats or unlawful communications.
In those jurisdictions that have statutes prohibiting unlawful communications, such as letters that tend to provoke a breach of the peace, a violation of the statute gives rise to a civil action for damages.