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The Perils of Stardom: Supreme Court to Address Online Threats Facing Celebrities and Legal Challenges in Response

by Mark Rasch

On April 19, 2023, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in the case of Counterman v. Colorado a case re-addressing the question of the mental state the government has to demonstrate to convict a person for making online threats. Specifically, the high court is addressing 'whether to establish that a statement is a "true threat" unprotected by the First Amendment, the government must show that the speaker subjectively knew or intended the threatening nature of the statement, or whether it is enough to show that an objective "reasonable person" would regard the statement as a threat of violence.'

The case illustrates the challenges individuals may face in dealing with online threats, harassment, revenge pornography, and other online attacks. For celebrities, these online attacks may be a precursor for real-world attacks, often by fans who are obsessed with the celebrity, or who bear a delusional relationship with the celebrity they threaten and attack. In many of these cases, the actor believes that they are in a relationship with the celebrity, and rather than thinking that they are engaging in unwanted contact with the celebrity, they believe (reasonably or not) that the celebrity wants this contact—irrespective of what the celebrity has expressed. The celebrity may attempt to block the offender, who then creates new profiles and new accounts to stay in contact with the celebrity. Ignoring the threat actor may simply invite escalation. Engaging with them may cause them to lash out. Disengaging may mean that you lose the ability to monitor their activities and respond to their threats. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the “carrier” of the threat (website, social media, etc.) has no liability as a publisher of the site, and may—or may not—remove or block the content, even if the content or actor violates that site’s terms of service.

This may mean that the threat actor does not believe that what they have done is “threatening” or "disturbing." The Supreme Court may revisit its holding in Elonis v. United States determining that the federal threats statute did not apply to a man whose online posts frequently included crude, degrading, and violent material about his soon-to-be ex-wife unless the government could prove that Elonis intended to communicate a threat to his ex-wife, as distinguished from a situation where Elonis intended to communicate a message which it was reasonable to conclude that it would be taken as a threat by a person about whom it was addressed, or by a reasonable person. In the case it is hearing this month, the high court will address the application of Elonis to a similar state case that specifically permits the conviction of the person who communicated a message that a reasonable person could take as a threat, irrespective of whether the defendant intended to threaten the person.


Coles Whalen is a Denver-based pop and country singer/songwriter who tours the country and has released six independent records. Among her followers on social media was 61-year-old Billy Raymond Counterman. Like many celebrities, Whalen had two Facebook profiles—a public account for promoting her music and a private account for personal use. In 2014, Counterman sent a Facebook friend request to Whalen, and over the next two years, Counterman sent "clusters" of messages to Whalen’s accounts - both the public one and the private one. Whalen deleted some of the messages and didn't respond to any of them. She said the messages were "weird" and "creepy." Whalen also blocked Counterman on Facebook multiple times to prevent him from sending her messages, but he would create new Facebook accounts and continue to send her messages. As the messages became creepier and more menacing, Whalen said that she became "fearful" of Counterman and said that his messages caused her "serious" concern. She was "extremely scared" of being hurt or killed after Counterman sent her messages saying that he wanted her to die. And Counterman's messages alluded to making "physical sightings" of Whalen in public. For example, in one of his messages, Counterman told Whalen that he had witnessed her doing "things that [she did] out and about." Counterman’s messages to the singer included invitations to coffee, threats to kill himself, and details about Whalen’s personal life and activities that made Whalen reasonably conclude that Counterman might be following her in public. When Whalen blocked Counterman’s account, he simply created aliases and continued to message her.

Whalen contacted an attorney to determine what actions she could take to protect herself from Counterman and learned that Counterman was serving probation for threatening to harm women, saying things like, “I’ll put your head on a f****** sidewalk and bash it in” and “I will rip your throat out on sight,” which not only heightened her concern but also caused her to cancel her concert performances for fear that Counterman would show up.

In May 2016, the police arrested Counterman and charged him with violations of Colorado stalking and threat laws as well as online harassment. In 2016, Counterman was convicted and sentenced to four and a half years in prison, and he has completed his sentence and is no longer incarcerated.

The U.S. Supreme Court is addressing whether Counterman’s celebrity obsession, manifest through more than a million individual messages to Whalen’s account, which understandably caused Whalen emotional distress and fear, and which were unwanted, and nearly ruined Whalen’s career, are in fact, criminal.


Like most celebrities, Whalen had a need to be both “public”—to promote herself and her music, to advertise the venues in which she was appearing, to create and promote a public persona, and to interact with her fans and supporters, but at the same time to keep herself safe from threats and harassment. Celebrities interact with their fans on Twitter, Instagram, Tik Tok, and Facebook, both directly and indirectly. Some of these celebrities have chosen their celebrity status, and some have become celebrities inadvertently. Some celebrities are wealthy and can afford security wherever they go, including threat analysis, social media monitoring, and psychological profiles of troublesome followers and fans. Some are sports figures, actors, models, political actors, or others. Being in the public eye often means being exposed to the dark underworld.

Many celebrities do not have the resources to defend themselves against these kinds of stalking attacks - especially where they are persistent. Law enforcement often is not equipped to deal with these cases, particularly where the threat actor is in a jurisdiction other than that of the celebrity, and other than the location where the threat is received or where it has its impact. Indeed, until there is an imminent threat to the life of the celebrity, law enforcement agencies may be unwilling or unequipped to respond. In more cases than one might like, the cops simply don’t care.

The problem is more severe for women than for men, particularly for young women who project an image of sexuality or sensuality. They frequently become the target of obsessed men (of many ages), including organized misogynistic attacks and attacks by incels or others. Indeed, the London, UK-based Young Gamers & Gamblers Education Trust (YGAM), conducted a study and found that 35% of female gamers had been sent inappropriate content from other gamers, 28% were sexually harassed, and 40% were verbally abused by online gamers. This culminated in the so-called “GamerGate” controversy of online bullying and harassment of female gamers. In 2014, independent game developer Zoe Quinn became the target of an online harassment campaign where she faced death threats, doxxing, and sustained online abuse, which led her to leave her home for her safety. The GamerGate controversy sparked a wider conversation about sexism, harassment, and online abuse in the gaming community similar to the online harassment of female cosplay actors.



Cyberbullying involves the use of electronic communication to harass, intimidate, or threaten an individual, often in a repeated manner. Celebrities are no exception to this, as they frequently become targets of online abuse. In 2016, American singer Christina Grimmie was murdered by an obsessed fan who stalked her online and tracked her down at a concert venue in Orlando, Florida. The fan shot and killed Grimmie during a meet-and-greet event after her performance. The tragic incident highlighted the potential dangers of online stalking. In 2021, Olivia Wilde obtained a restraining order against a stalker who obsessively claimed to be in a relationship with her and threatened her and her then-partner, Jason Sudeikis. The stalker had been harassing Wilde for months, sending her letters and showing up at her home. The restraining order granted protection to both Wilde and Sudeikis, highlighting the potential dangers of online stalking and harassment for celebrities. In 2016, Leslie Jones, an American actress and comedian, faced an onslaught of racist and sexist attacks on Twitter following her role in the Ghostbusters reboot. The harassment became so severe that she temporarily quit the platform. Ultimately, several high-profile Twitter accounts were suspended for their involvement in the abuse. Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, and her husband Prince Harry have been subjected to racist online abuse since their relationship went public. The relentless harassment eventually led the couple to step back from their royal duties and move to the United States, illustrating the impact of online harassment on high-profile figures. In the 2018 Parkland school shooting, David Hogg became an outspoken gun control advocate. As a result, he faced conspiracy theories accusing him of being a "crisis actor" and received numerous death threats. Hogg's experience highlights the dangers of online harassment and disinformation.


In many cases involving celebrities, hackers obtain unauthorized access to the computers or online accounts of the celebrities and then post either personal information gleaned from the unauthorized access (doxxing), or more frequently, post nude or otherwise compromising photographs of the celebrity or others found on the account.

One famous case, in 2014 nicknamed “the fappening involved numerous celebrities, including Jennifer Lawrence, who fell victim to a massive iCloud hacking incident in 2014, resulting in the leak of private and intimate photographs. The breach exposed the vulnerability of online storage systems and raised questions about privacy rights in the digital age. In 2011, Scarlett Johansson's email account was hacked by a cybercriminal who leaked her private photos online. The hacker, who targeted multiple celebrities, was eventually arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Model Gigi Hadid's Instagram account was hacked in 2019, with the perpetrator threatening to release personal information about her. Hadid managed to regain control of her account and warned her fans about the potential data leak. In 2017, Selena Gomez's Instagram account was hacked, and a nude photo of her ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber was posted. The hackers also included their own handles in the post, bragging about their actions. In 2008, Miley Cyrus's email account was hacked, and private photos of the then-15-year-old singer were leaked online. The hacker was later arrested and charged with multiple counts of unauthorized computer access and wiretapping. In 2017, Emma Watson's private photos were stolen and leaked online. The photos were taken during a swimsuit fitting and did not contain nudity. Watson's representatives confirmed the theft and stated that legal action would be taken. In 2017, Amanda Seyfried's private photos were leaked online, along with those of other celebrities. Seyfried's legal team issued a cease-and-desist letter to the website hosting the images, demanding their removal. In 2017, Demi Lovato's private photos were leaked online, along with other celebrities. The leak came shortly after the singer had celebrated five years of sobriety, and Lovato took to social media to address the incident.


Hackers and scammers often make unauthorized use of a celebrity's name, image, or personal information to deceive others, often for financial gain or other malicious purposes. Thus, for example, a scammer posed as actor Chris Pratt on social media to solicit money from his fans, leading the actor to issue a warning to his followers. Oprah Winfrey, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Legend, and Gisele Bundchen, have all been impersonated online, and the scammers have used these faked or hacked accounts to solicit funds from the public. In 2019, Tom Hanks' name was used by scammers who created fake social media accounts and impersonated the actor. They attempted to solicit money from unsuspecting fans by offering them a chance to win a large cash prize. Hanks himself warned his followers to be cautious of such scams. This not only harms the reputation of the celebrity, but causes harm and animosity by the victim of the fraud against the celebrity, who then may blame the celebrity for the financial loss, and then threaten or harass the celebrity.


While most celebrity deepfake videos are used for demonstrative purposes (swapping actors in movies, de-aging actors, or impersonating celebrities like President Obama or Tom Cruise) the quality of deepfake AI-generated videos has become good enough that they are sometimes used to solicit funds or create fictitious endorsements of products or services. In 2018, a deepfake video falsely showing actor Rob Lowe endorsing a male enhancement supplement was circulated online. Deepfake technology uses AI to manipulate videos and create realistic but fake footage of individuals. This incident highlighted the potential dangers of deepfake technology and its potential impact on celebrity reputations. In 2020, a deepfake video of Taylor Swift emerged online, falsely depicting her making controversial statements. In 2020, a massive Bitcoin scam targeted high-profile Twitter accounts, including that of Bill Gates. The scammers posted messages on the hacked accounts claiming to be giving away Bitcoin and asking users to send cryptocurrency to a specific address to receive a larger amount in return. In 2018, a deepfake video falsely portraying actress Gal Gadot in explicit content was circulated online.


In addition to threats, celebrities are often the victim of doxxing attacks online — the dissemination of personal information about them that can be used to embarrass them, or more often to threaten and harass them. For example, in 2018, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford was doxxed after her testimony against then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Personal information, including her home address and phone number, was shared online, forcing her and her family to move multiple times due to threats. Similar doxxing/threats cases occurred in the GamerGate case, the David Hogg (Parkland shooting) case, and the Leslie Jones case. In 2019, Taylor Swift experienced a doxxing attack, where her personal phone number and home address were leaked online. The singer also received violent threats, causing her to ramp up her security measures. The same year, model Gigi Hadid's Instagram account was hacked, with the perpetrator threatening to release personal information about her. Hadid managed to regain control of her account and warned her fans about the potential data leak.

The rapid growth of the internet and social media has led to an increase in online harassment, threats, doxxing, revenge porn, and false impersonation directed at celebrities. These issues pose significant legal challenges for investigating, prosecuting, and preventing such malicious activities. Some of the key challenges include:

Discovery issues: Obtaining evidence in cases of online harassment can be difficult due to the often ephemeral nature of digital content. Cybercriminals may quickly delete their tracks, making it challenging for law enforcement agencies to gather the necessary evidence to build a case.

Reluctance of law enforcement to proceed: Law enforcement agencies may be reluctant to prioritize cases involving online harassment, particularly when they lack the resources or expertise to investigate such incidents. Additionally, the jurisdictional boundaries of law enforcement agencies can complicate investigations that span across different states or countries.

Anonymity of the Internet: The internet allows users to maintain a high degree of anonymity, making it difficult for law enforcement and celebrities to identify those responsible for online harassment. Cybercriminals often use false names, email addresses, and other identifiers to conceal their true identities.

Layers of anonymity in technology: VPNs, TOR browsers, and other tools can further mask a cybercriminal's identity and location, complicating investigations. These tools can reroute internet traffic through multiple servers and encrypt data, making it challenging for authorities to trace cybercriminals back to their original IP addresses.

Use of anonymous accounts: Social media platforms and other online services often allow users to create accounts with minimal personal information. This anonymity can make it difficult to link malicious online activities to specific individuals.

Encryption: Encryption technologies can make it difficult for law enforcement agencies to access the content of communications between cybercriminals or to decipher data stored on devices.

Proxy servers: Cybercriminals may use proxy servers to mask their location and identity, making it difficult for law enforcement agencies to trace their activities.

Despite these challenges, the legal process can be used to uncover, prosecute, and sue bad actors targeting celebrities. Some potential avenues for addressing these issues include:

Strengthening laws and regulations: Governments can enact stronger laws against online harassment, doxxing, revenge porn, and false impersonation to deter potential offenders and provide a legal framework for prosecuting those who engage in such activities.

Cooperation between law enforcement agencies: Enhanced cooperation between local, state, federal, and international law enforcement agencies can help overcome jurisdictional boundaries and facilitate more effective investigations.

Collaboration with technology companies: Law enforcement agencies can work closely with technology companies to obtain digital evidence, identify perpetrators, and develop tools to combat online harassment and threats.

Civil litigation: Celebrities can pursue civil lawsuits against those responsible for online harassment, doxxing, or other malicious activities. In some cases, this can result in monetary damages or injunctions to prevent further harm.

Education and awareness: Public education campaigns can raise awareness about the legal consequences of engaging in online harassment, threats, doxxing, and false impersonation, and help foster a safer online environment.

Victim support and advocacy: Celebrities can work with victim support organizations and advocacy groups to push for stronger legal protections and resources for addressing online harassment and threats.


As the internet has become an integral part of our daily lives, it has also become a platform for malicious activities such as online defamation, online threats, online harassment, false personation, doxxing, revenge porn, fraudulent fundraising schemes, misuse of celebrity likeness, and automated harassment campaigns, among others. High-profile and celebrity clients are particularly vulnerable to these types of attacks, as they often have a larger online presence and following. Here are some specific cases and ways lawyers can deal with these online attacks:


Online defamation occurs when someone makes false and damaging statements about another person online. Anonymous posters can be difficult to identify, which makes it difficult to bring them to justice. However, lawyers can file a John Doe lawsuit to obtain the identity of the anonymous poster from the website or internet service provider hosting the defamatory content. In the 2013 case of Liskula Cohen v. Google, Inc., a New York court ordered Google to reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who had defamed a former model, Liskula Cohen, by calling her a "skank" and a "ho" online.


Online threats can be just as frightening and disruptive as physical threats. They can take many forms, including direct messages, emails, and comments on social media platforms. Lawyers can use a variety of legal tools to deal with online threats, including filing a restraining order, contacting law enforcement agencies, and requesting that social media platforms remove the threatening content. In 2014, actress Ashley Judd filed a lawsuit against an anonymous Twitter user who had threatened her with sexual violence. The lawsuit resulted in the identification of the perpetrator, who was subsequently arrested and charged with making terroristic threats.


Online harassment can take many forms, including cyberbullying, stalking, and hate speech. Lawyers can help their clients deal with online harassment by taking legal action against the perpetrators, such as filing a lawsuit or restraining order. In 2016, Leslie Jones, an actress and comedian, was subjected to a barrage of racist and sexist comments on Twitter. Jones enlisted the help of her lawyer to report the abuse to Twitter and to seek legal action against the perpetrators. As a result, Twitter permanently banned the perpetrators from the platform.


False personation is the act of impersonating another person online, often with the intent to harm their reputation or gain access to their personal information. Lawyers can take legal action against those who engage in false personation by filing a lawsuit or requesting that social media platforms remove the impersonating content. In 2015, a man was arrested for impersonating a doctor on Instagram and using his account to solicit nude photos from his female followers. The man was charged with false personation and other crimes.


Privacy is a fundamental right, and high-profile and celebrity clients may face privacy violations, such as the unauthorized use of their personal information or images. Lawyers can help their clients protect their privacy by taking legal action against those who violate their privacy rights, such as filing a lawsuit or requesting that social media platforms remove the infringing content. In 2017, Jennifer Lawrence and other celebrities were victims of a hack that resulted in the leak of their private photos. The hackers were subsequently charged and sentenced to prison.


Doxxing is the act of releasing someone's personal information online without their consent. This can include their home address, phone number, or other sensitive information. Lawyers can take legal action against those who engage in doxxing by filing a lawsuit or requesting that social media platforms remove the infringing content. In 2018, actress Kelly Marie Tran was subjected to doxxing and racist harassment on social media following her appearance in the film "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Tran's lawyer released a statement condemning the harassment and calling for social media platforms to take action against those who engage in such behavior.


Revenge porn is the act of sharing sexually explicit images or videos of someone without their consent. With the rise of artificial intelligence, perpetrators can use deepfakes to create realistic videos that appear to be authentic. Lawyers can help their clients deal with revenge porn by taking legal action against the perpetrators, such as filing a lawsuit or requesting that social media platforms remove the infringing content. In 2014, actress Mischa Barton filed a lawsuit against her ex-boyfriend for sharing explicit photos and videos of her online. The lawsuit resulted in a settlement, with the ex-boyfriend agreeing to pay damages to Barton.


Fraudulent fundraising schemes can use fake celebrity endorsements to scam people out of money. Lawyers can take legal action against those who engage in such schemes by filing a lawsuit or reporting fraudulent activity to the appropriate authorities. In 2020, actor Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson took legal action against a company that was using his likeness to promote a fraudulent fundraising campaign. Johnson's lawyers filed a lawsuit against the company, resulting in the removal of the fraudulent campaign.


The misuse or abuse of a celebrity's likeness can be damaging to their reputation and can cause emotional distress. With the rise of deepfakes, it has become easier to create realistic videos and images that appear to be authentic. Lawyers can help their clients deal with the misuse or abuse of their likeness by taking legal action against the perpetrators, such as filing a lawsuit or requesting that social media platforms remove the infringing content. In 2020, actor Tom Cruise was the victim of a deepfake video that went viral online. The video was created using artificial intelligence and showed Cruise doing dangerous stunts. Cruise's lawyer condemned the video and called for social media platforms to take action against deepfakes.


Automated harassment campaigns involve the use of bots to send harassing messages or engage in other forms of online harassment. Lawyers can take legal action against those who engage in automated harassment campaigns by filing a lawsuit or reporting the activity to the appropriate authorities. In 2017, author and feminist activist Jessica Valenti was the victim of an automated harassment campaign on Twitter. Valenti's lawyer reported the activity to Twitter and law enforcement, resulting in the arrest of the perpetrator.


Denial Of Service Attacks involves the use of bots to overwhelm a website or online service, causing it to crash. This can be damaging to a celebrity's reputation and can also cause financial harm. Lawyers can take legal action against those who engage in Denial Of Service Attacks by filing a lawsuit or reporting the activity to the appropriate authorities. In 2015, a group of hackers targeted the website of actress Emma Watson, causing it to crash. Watson's lawyers condemned the attack and called for the perpetrators to be held accountable.

In conclusion, high-profile and celebrity clients face a range of online attacks, from defamation and harassment to doxxing and revenge porn. Lawyers can help their clients deal with these attacks by using legal tools such as John Doe lawsuits, restraining orders, and takedown demands. It is important for lawyers to stay up-to-date on the latest legal developments and technological advancements in order to effectively help their clients in these complex situations.

To learn more about Unit 221B's threat intelligence, investigations, or incident monitoring cybersecurity services, please contact us.