Supreme Court Reverses Conviction of Man Who Posted Violent Facebook Messages
WASHINGTON, June 1 (UPI) — The Supreme Court on Monday reversed a federal threat statute conviction of a man who posted multiple violent messages on Facebook.
It is the first time the United State’s top court ruled on the implications of free speech on social media.
Anthony Elonis was sentenced to more than three years in prison in 2010 on charges of threatening his ex-wife, a kindergarten class and law enforcement officers.
Elonis admitted posting the messages under the pseudonym Tone Dougie, but argued the messages were rap lyrics used as therapy to help him cope with depression after his wife left him.
“There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you,” he wrote in one post about his ex-wife.
“Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined,” he wrote in another.
“I’ve got enough explosives to take care of the State Police and the Sheriff ‘s Department,” another reads.
The Supreme Court said that it was not enough to convict Elonis solely on the idea that a reasonable person would regard his communications as a threat.
“At trial, Elonis testified that his posts emulated the rap lyrics of the well-known performer Eminem, some of which involve fantasies about killing his ex-wife,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion. “In Elonis’s view, he had posted ‘nothing … that hasn’t been said already.’ The Government presented as witnesses Elonis’s wife and co-workers, all of whom said they felt afraid and viewed Elonis’s posts as serious threats.”
The Court’s ruling states that the legal standard used to convict Elonis was too low, but did not address what the standard should be.
“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 his words conveyed such a threat? Would recklessness suffice? The Court declines to say. Attorneys and judges are left to guess,” Justice Alito wrote in his opinion.