The U.S. Supreme Court buttressed speech protections on the Internet, throwing out the conviction of a man who used graphic language on Facebook to suggest he might kill his wife, kindergarten students and an FBI agent.
The case marks the first time the high court has ruled on the rights of people when they post on social media. It tested how the federal threat statute applies in a world of online communications, with their potential to reach thousands of people instantly and to be misunderstood.
A lower court had said prosecutors needed to show only that a reasonable person would view Anthony Elonis’s statements as a threat. Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts said prosecutors need to prove more than that — at least that Elonis’s comments were reckless and perhaps that he meant for his words to be taken as a threat.
“Federal criminal law generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state,” Roberts wrote.
Elonis, who cites the rapper Eminem as an inspiration, said his posts were therapeutic rap lyrics and weren’t intended as threats. One post said, “I’m not gonna rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.” Another envisioned his wife’s “head on a stick.”
The justices didn’t decide whether Elonis’s First Amendment rights were violated, instead interpreting the federal threat statute in a way that averted potential constitutional problems.
Six justices joined the entirety of Roberts’s opinion. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, voting to uphold Elonis’s conviction.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote separately and said he would have set aside the conviction. At the same time, Alito said he would have given prosecutors a new chance to convince a lower court that Elonis’s conduct was so reckless that the conviction should be reinstated.
Alito faulted the majority for not saying whether it would be enough for prosecutors to show that Elonis’s conduct was reckless.
“This court’s disposition of this case is certain to cause confusion and serious problems,” Alito wrote.
Roberts said the court didn’t reach that issue because no federal appeals court had considered it first.
Elonis, now 31, made the posts on his public Facebook page in 2010, after his wife left him and took their two children with her, and after he lost his job at an amusement park in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Among the posts was one that said there were “enough elementary schools in a 10-mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.” He added, “And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.”
The Obama administration, defending the prosecution, contended that someone can be charged under a federal law so long as a reasonable person would view the statement as a threat.
A Philadelphia-based federal appeals court upheld the conviction. Elonis served more than three years in prison.
The case is Elonis v. United States, 13-983.
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