The United States Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in favor of a man who was convicted of making violent threats on Facebook to his wife and others, ultimately deciding when online harassment can be deemed a federal crime.
The decision favors Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man sentenced to 44 months in prison for posting violent messages on Facebook threatening to kidnap and kill, among others, his estranged wife.
The posts read as rap lyrics and Elonis argued they were meant to be “harmless and therapeutic”, with many statements arguing that Elonis was just exercising his First Amendment rights.
“There’s one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya ... hurry up and die b*tch,” Elonis wrote in one post.
But his wife, who recently left him, felt scared enough to obtain a protective order.
One post also detailed how someone could get away with murdering his wife with a mortar launcher and another posted to his sister-in-law’s Facebook wall said his son should dress up as a “matricide” for Halloween with his mother’s head on a stick as a prop.
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Elonis’ posts targeted not only his wife, but passersby, law enforcement and even schools of children. He posted lyrics hinting towards mass elementary school shootings and was fired from his job as an amusement park security guard after his boss saw a picture of him wielding a toy knife towards a female co-worker with the caption, “I wish.”
The justices decided not to focus on First Amendment rights rather trying to decipher whether the posts were true and considerable threats with intent to be carried out. The justices ruled that Elonis’ post while careless did not generate enough concern to convey a credible intention to harm.
“Elonis’s conviction, however, was premised solely on how his posts would be understood by a reasonable person,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, and “whether a ‘reasonable person’ regards the communication as a threat — regardless of what the defendant thinks — ‘reduces culpability on the all-important element of the crime to negligence’…What [Elonis] thinks does matter.”
"Our holding makes clear that negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction.”
The ruling comes amid the online harassment problem that social media networks face. Twitter, especially, has come under fire for its lax enforcement and policies surrounding abusive trolls who often target marginalized groups, such as women, the LGBT community and people of color.
Today’s ruling reinforces the naive assumption that threats made online are not legitimate enough to be taken seriously, making it even more difficult to hold trolls accountable for their abusive actions.