Supreme Court: Violent Threats Posted Online Are Not (Necessarily) Threats

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The Supreme Court ruled on Monday to overturn a Pennsylvania man’s conviction for violent threats he posted on Facebook against his estranged wife in the form of rap lyrics. The case marks the first time the Court has considered questions of free speech on social media.

 

The question boiled down to whether threats made on social media sites like Facebook can reflect intent to do true harm. Ultimately the court ruled in favor for the defendant because the prosecution was unable to prove that the threats were malicious beyond the fact that most reasonable people would consider them threatening. Taken alone, the threats could not prove the defendant’s state of mind–that is, whether he knew (intent) the fear he would cause.  

 

The Story Behind the Case

Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man who goes by the persona “Tone Dougie,” was convicted of violating a federal threat statute after writing violent lyrics on his Facebook page. While many of the lyrics were directed at his ex-wife, who had recently left him, some of the supposed threats took aim at the community, including mentions of school shootings at any of all of the elementary schools within a ten-mile radius. Among other threats to kill his ex-wife, Elonis mentioned wanting a Halloween costume that would feature her “head on a stick.” At times he also remarked publicly that the statements were “art” and “therapy.” His ex-wife stated that she felt threatened, like she was being “stalked.” Elonis was sentenced to 44 months in prison in 2011.

 

Chief Justice Roberts called Elonis’s words “crude, degrading, and violent.” But on the question of whether they were worthy of his conviction, the court considered lyrics by the rapper Eminem, whom Elonis stated to be an influence, whose songs often feature violent acts toward his wife, Kim Mathers. Roberts quoted lyrics from Eminem’s song “‘97 Bonnie and Clyde”: “DaDa made a nice bed for Mommy at the bottom of a lake.” Ultimately, the court decided that such statements are not enough evidence to prove intent–not intent to do harm, but to cause fear–a new requirement that must be considered with the threat statute under which Elonis was convicted.

 

Significance for Social

“How does one prove what’s in somebody else’s mind?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked. While the ruling has much to do with the workings of the First Amendment, its crossover into social media is notable. Who are we online? Elonis posted under a persona, for example, and others may have interpreted his violent lyrics as controversial promotion for his music.

The ruling also dovetails with recent considerations–and demand–for more protections against harassers online on messageboards like Reddit and Twitter. In Wired’s analysis, Danielle Citron, professor of law at University of Maryland and the author of Hate Crimes in Cyberspace notes that the ruling “upends how courts have ruled on these issues in the past and leaves many questions unanswered as to how they should proceed in the future.” The difference between proving that a “reasonable” person would find the language threatening vs. proving intent is a “higher standard.”

 

On the other hand, the focus on malicious intent may in fact bring some of the Internet’s most noxious trolls to task. “The one good thing,” Citron says, “is the Elonis case has brought the issue of online abuse and domestic abuse into the conversation and consciousness in a way that’s been immovable before.”

 

Image credit: Shutterstock

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