​Supreme Court To Decide Importance of Intent in Online Threats


Yesterday, the Supreme Court announced it will be hearing arguments on a case involving a Pennsylvania man convicted in 2010 under federal law for posting violent and graphic threats directed at his ex-wife and coworkers on Facebook. They will be deciding “whether, as a matter of statutory interpretation, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U. S. C. §875(c) requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten.” In more reductive language, if a person’s conviction over violent threats requires proof that the person really meant those threats.

Jessica Mason Pieklo at RH Reality Check details some of the gritty parts of the case surrounding Anthony Elonis:

After he was fired, Elonis’ posts became increasingly violent. According to court documents, Elonis’ Facebook statements included threats to kill his ex-wife, blow up the sheriff’s office, shoot up a kindergarten, and attack former co-workers.

Elonis posted graphic threats to his Facebook, saying atrocious things like “there’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you.” When his ex-wife was granted a protection from abuse order, he defended his statements, saying that they were Eminem-style rap lyrics and were never meant to be seen as real threats. Uh huh. Furthermore in his defense, he cited a 2003 Supreme Court decision “that a Virginia law banning cross-burning was unconstitutional for its definition of a “true threat,” arguing the decision introduced a requirement prosecutors show a ‘specific intent to threaten.'”

Elonis continued posting violent statements online including one expressing his desire to “initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined” at elementary schools, even while under FBI surveillance. He was sentenced to four years.

The Supreme Court’s decision on this case will clearly carry some serious import for how online threats made against women are dealt with.

Furthermore, as Pieklo points out, the decision could have a huge effect on other cases like those that involve abortion protesters threatening abortion providers. At the moment the Supreme Court is set to make a decision on abortion clinic buffer zones as opponents claim that the 35-foot protest free zone outside abortion clinics is a violation of free speech as well as a decision on whether or not policing abortion opponents’ false statements during political campaigns breaches First Amendment rights. So I guess we’ll see how this goes.

Image via Getty.

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