WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled a person can be convicted for online threat speech only with proof of awareness that the speech will be received as threatening, clarifying what constitutes a “true threat” on social media.
The Court ruled in favor of Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man who was convicted in 2010 under a federal threat-speech statute for violent language he used on Facebook to describe his wife, local elementary schools and an FBI agent. In his defense, Elonis claimed the online posts were rap lyrics and he did not intend to threaten anybody. Instead, he said the posts were therapeutic for him in helping deal with the pain he felt after his wife took their children and left him in 2010.
In a 7-2 decision, the Court overturned Elonis’ conviction, ruling that a person cannot be convicted for online speech simply because a reasonable person could perceive the speech as a threat, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
“Elonis can be convicted, the Government contends, if he himself knew the contents and context of his posts, and a reasonable person would have recognized that the posts would be read as genuine threats,” Roberts wrote.
This was the first case the Supreme Court has heard to address online free-speech protections. However, the justices refrained from making a sweeping ruling that some free speech advocates hoped for and instead focused on how to further define what constitutes a threat for purposes of the federal anti-threat statute.
The decision overturns the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals’ ruling, which considered only whether a reasonable person would view the posts as a threat. A lower court convicted Elonis in October 2011 and later sentenced him to 44 months in prison and three years probation.
“The jury was instructed that the Government need prove only that a reasonable person would regard Elonis’s communications as threats, and that was error,” Roberts wrote. “Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.”
In a partial dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the decision left it unclear what type of intent Elonis needed to show in order to convict him of making a true threat.
“Did the jury need to find that Elonis had the purpose of conveying a true threat?” Alito wrote. “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. This will have regrettable consequences.”
Several free speech organizations, including the Student Press Law Center, filed briefs in Elonis’ favor, saying that online communication is prone to misinterpretation and broad First Amendment protections are necessary to avoid chilling speech.
“Internet users may give vent to emotions on which they have no intention of acting, memorializing expressions of momentary anger or exasperation that once were communicated face-to face among friends and dissipated harmlessly,” according to a brief by the SPLC, Electronic Frontier Foundation and PEN American Center. “Thus, the uninhibited interaction, discussion, and personal revelations facilitated so powerfully by social media also implicates speech that may be unsavory or even distressing to some recipients, but this is precisely the type of speech the First Amendment is designed to protect.”
Contact SPLC staff writer David Lim by email or at (202) 974-6317.