The US Supreme Court struck another blow for free speech on Monday, ruling that threats made over the Internet are protected unless they are intentionally malevolent.
The decision was a temporary victory for Anthony Elonis and those like him whose threatening words on Facebook or similar social media sites may instill fear in their targets. It was a defeat for the government and groups that defend victims of domestic violence.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the decision for a near-unanimous court. It was based on the court's interpretation of a federal statute, rather than under the First Amendment.
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented, and Justice Samuel Alito dissented in part.
Elonis was 27 and recently unemployed in Pennsylvania five years ago when he began posting threats against his estranged wife and others, from a generic kindergarten class to the FBI agents who came to his door. He was convicted on four counts of transmitting threats and sentenced to 44 months in prison. He completed his term a year ago.
The question that has split federal appeals courts is whether the threats must be intentional, or whether they are illegal just because a "reasonable person" - such as those on the receiving end - takes them seriously. Elonis was convicted under the latter standard; a majority of justices ruled that's not sufficient.
"Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant's mental state," Roberts wrote.
Elonis might not be off the hook, however. The high court's ruling means his case will be sent back to a lower court to determine whether he meant what he posted or was at least reckless in posting it. If the court rules that his posts were intentionally or recklessly threatening, his conviction would stand.
The case represents a critical test of free speech in the Internet age, when words that seem threatening emanate from violent spouses and video game-players alike. The justices were seeking a rule that could result in locking up the former and letting the latter off the hook.
Elonis' case offered a perfect test. After his wife, Tara, left him and took their two children, he lost his job at an Allentown, Pa., amusement park and began a series of dark posts containing explicit references to violence against his wife, co-workers, kindergartners, police and the FBI.
Sometimes, he imitated rap lyrics. Other times, he referred to his First Amendment rights. His lawyers said it was a form of therapy as well as art.
"Did you know that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?" Elonis wrote in one of many posts. "It's illegal. It's indirect criminal contempt. It's one of the only sentences that I'm not allowed to say."
The lengthy diatribe copied nearly word-for-word a satirical sketch by The Whitest Kids U' Know comedy troupe, concluding with Elonis' own summation: "Art is about pushing limits. I'm willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are you?"
10 facts you didn’t know about Facebook
10 facts you didn’t know about Facebook
Around 350 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day, with the site estimating in September last year that users had so far put up more than 250 billion images. That’s 4,000 photos uploaded every second and around 4 per cent of all photos ever taken, according to a study by Nokia.
Facebook’s logo is blue because Mark Zuckerberg is red-green colour blind. “Blue is the richest color for me. I can see all of blue," said Zuckerberg in an interview with the New Yorker. The colour is so popular that Facebook’s campus store even sells nail polish in the exact shade named ‘social butterfly blue’.
Zuckerberg's famously low-key wardrobe (either a grey t-shirt or a hoodie) is so that the CEO saves time deciding what to wear each day. However, Zuckerberg is known to dress up when the occasion demands it. For a 2011 event with Barack Obama he showed up in a suit, with the president introducing himself by saying: “I’m Barack Obama and I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie.”
In July 2006 Zuckerberg turned down a $1 billion offer for the site from Yahoo. He was 22 years old at the time and owned 25 per cent of the company. Zuckerberg reportedly turned it down by saying “I don't know what I could do with the money. I'd just start another social networking site. I kind of like the one I already have.” He definitely made the right choice: Facebook is now valued at $135 billion.
A YouGov poll claimed that three-quarter of UK Facebook users' photos showed someone drinking or inebriated. However, the poll did ask users to estimate the number of boozy snaps themselves, and like all things on Facebook, there might have been an element of exaggeration involved.
Facebook operates a bounty hunter program – for bugs. Like many other big technology companies Facebook offers cash rewards to security researchers who point out flaws in the site’s code. The minimum payout is $500 and the largest prize to date has been $33,500.
More than a third of divorce filings in 2011 referenced Facebook, said a survey from UK-based legal firm Divorce Online. The exact figures may be an estimate, but with just under 8 trillion Facebook messages sent in 2013 it’s certain that a substantial body of evidence is to be found on the social network.
Zuckerberg isn’t much of a Twitter fan. Despite having nearly three hundred thousand followers on the service he’s only tweeted 19 times - once in 2012 and the rest in 2009. Although Facebook dwarfs twitter in terms of active users (1 billion compared with 200 million by some accounts) the micro-blogging site handles breaking news better. Facebook has introduced trending topics and hashtags to counter this.
Following the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009 Iceland decided to rewrite their constitution using Facebook to solicit suggestions from citizens. Unfortunately, despite this forward thinking approach, the document was killed by politicians in mid-2013 for various (mostly technical) reasons.
You can browse Facebook upside down. Facebook currently supports more than 70 different languages – including English (Pirate) and English (Upside Down). Check the bottom of the column on the right of your newsfeed and click your current language to change!
Elonis' attorneys said he never intended to carry out his violent threats. On the Internet, they said, context is lost and words can be misinterpreted.
The government said the standard used by lower courts — that Elonis' words on Facebook could be viewed as threats by a reasonable person reading them — was sufficient, and his intent did not have to be proved.
"Juries are fully capable of distinguishing between metaphorical expression of strong emotions and statements that have the clear sinister meaning of a threat," its brief said. Rap music has thrived under the "reasonable person" standard, it noted, without ensnaring popular rappers such as Eminem.
The government was backed by groups such as the National Network to End Domestic Violence, which cited a survey of 759 victims' service agencies that found nearly 90% of them had cases of threats delivered via technology. Text messages were the most prevalent form, followed by social media and e-mail. Women between the ages of 18 and 24 were the most frequent targets.
The current US Supreme Court has been a strong defender of free speech rights, going so far as to permit distasteful protests at military funerals and online videos depicting animal torture.
But it also has drawn lines, ruling last term against the free speech rights of a previously convicted military protester and opponents of then-President George W. Bush who were moved from their protest site by the Secret Service.
This story originally appeared on USA Today.Reuse content