U.S. Supreme Court Rules Facebook Threats Not a Crime
On Monday, June 1, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of Anthony Elonis, a man convicted for making threats on Facebook against his estranged wife. He originally received a 44-month sentence from a Pennsylvania Court for the online threats, but U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed, saying there wasn’t enough to support the conviction.
Of importance in the ruling was that Elonis wrote under a pseudo name: “Tone Dougie.” He argued that his social medial postings were stylized as rap lyrics, which invoked his argument of free speech. His comments included:
“Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat
Leave her bleedin’ from her jugular in the arms of her partner [laughter]
So the next time you knock, you best be serving a warrant
And bring yo’ SWAT and an explosives expert while you’re at it”
Elonis also wrote: “Art is about pushing limits. I’m willing to go to jail for my Constitutional rights. Are you?”
Elonis’ friends and family read these words to be actual threats against his wife. The trial court defined the words “true threat” as: “intentionally makes a statement … wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates … as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual.”
On appeal, the government defended an instruction that puts emphasis on a reader’s interpretation, while Elonis’ lawyers argued that a jury should have been asked to examine what Elonis had in mind with his Internet postings.
Justice Roberts, along with six other judges, agreed that: “negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction” under the relevant threats statute. Additionally, a defendant’s “mental state” must be considered.
Justice Samuel Alito, concurred with his opinion: “The Court’s disposition of this case is certain to cause confusion and serious problems,” he wrote. “The Court holds that the jury instructions in this case were defective because they required only negligence in conveying a threat. But the Court refuses to explain what type of intent was necessary. Did the jury need to find that Elonis had the purpose of conveying a true threat? Was it enough if he knew that the words conveyed such a threat? Would recklessness suffice? The Court declines to say. Attorneys and judges are left to guess.”