Elonis v. United States

Convicted of making threats against his estranged wife and law-enforcement officers via posts on his Facebook page, Anthony Elonis challenged the conviction as a violation of his First Amendment rights. A three-judge panel of the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction as valid. The judges found that it was unnecessary for prosecutors to prove that Elonis actually intended the speech as a threat. All that mattered is that members of the audience reasonably interpreted the speech as threatening.The SPLC filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting Elonis’ position that a speaker using social media cannot be imprisoned for the felony of making threats without proof of an intent to threaten. The SPLC brief attempted to educate the justices on the way people use social media and the special risks that — unlike speech on paper — a social-media post might be forwarded or republished to multiple waves of readers in a context the speaker never intended. The brief gave the example of a Twitter post that is part of a string of posts commenting on a violent television program that could end up republished in a Storify article without the writer’s original disclaimers, giving the impression that the writer intends to do violence. (In fact, as the brief points out, this scenario resulted in a long incarceration for an 18-year-old Texas man whose back-and-forth joking with a fellow video gamer was misinterpreted by a reader far-removed from the conversation.) Young people are uniquely vulnerable to misunderstandings about their social-media speech because they may use slang terms — or quotes from popular entertainment — that aren’t understood by adults who are beyond the speakers’ targeted listening audience, said the brief, which was joined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the PEN American Center.