The Supreme Court on Monday took the first step toward making what could be a landmark ruling on free speech in the digital age in a case over whether statements made on social media can constitute criminal threats.
Anthony Elonis of Bethlehem, Penn. was sentenced to 44 months in prison after posting a series of graphic, violent statements about his estranged wife, an FBI agent, a co-worker and a kindergarten class on Facebook in 2010. Jurors convicted Elonis on the grounds that his violent posts were equal to threats. (RELATED: Facebook Case May Limit Free Speech)
“If I only knew then what I know now, I would have smothered your ass with a pillow, dumped your body in the back seat, dropped you off in Toad Creek, and made it look like a rape and murder,” Elonis wrote about his wife according to a brief filed with the court.
“There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you,” Elonis wrote in another. “And I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die bitch.”
In a third, Elonis said, “I used to be a nice guy but then you became a slut. Guess it’s not your fault you liked your daddy raped you” and “Fold up your protective order and put in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
Elonis later wrote about making “a name for himself” with “the most heinous [elementary] school shooting ever imagined.”
“Hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class,” he wrote. “The only question is… which one.”
Elonis also referenced FBI agent Denise Stevens after she visited Elonis at his home in reference to the posts.
“Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the bitch ghost,” he wrote. “Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat. Leave her bleedin’ from her jugular in the arms of her partner.”
In his testimony Elonis said the posts were inspired by rap lyricists such as Eminem, and that they were his way of expressing frustration over the end of his marriage. Elonis argued his posts should be protected under First Amendment freedom of speech and expression protections.
“Art is about pushing limits. I’m willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are you?” Elonis wrote along with a link to a freedom of speech page on Wikipedia. He furthered pushed against legal boundaries with statements like, “What’s interesting is that it’s very illegal to say I really, really think someone out there should kill my wife.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected Elonis’ First Amendment appeal, and various lower courts have issued differing opinions on the issue, leaving open the potential for the court to issue a major, precedent-setting decision.
Elonis’ argument before the court centers around the claim that the government must prove Elonis meant for his posts to be interpreted threateningly. Prosecutors argue Elonis’ intentions make no difference if the posts were interpreted as a threat by Elonis’ wife and others, or otherwise reasonable persons.
Free speech advocates across a wide range including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), People for Ethical Treatment of Animals and Pro-Life Action League have lined up behind the Elonis defense, claiming that enforcing the ruling could limit free speech.
“A statute that proscribes speech without regard to the speaker’s intended meaning runs the risk of punishing protected First Amendment expression simply because it is crudely or zealously expressed,” the ACLU and other groups said in a brief about the case.
The government argues that exempting speech like Elonis’ from prosecution threatens to compromise a federal law protecting victims from threatening speech, and the Supreme Court has a decades-long history of ruling against cases seeking to safeguard threats under the First Amendment.
The court’s decision is expected sometime in the first months of 2015.