In another milestone towards the free speech era globally, the U.S. Supreme Court in Elonis v. USA, [U.S. Supreme Court, 13-983] yesterday quashed the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who was alleged for making threatening Facebook statements toward his estranged wife and others, while analyzing the permissible limits of virtual world comments. Elonis was convicted of violating a federal law that outlaws sending a threatening communication and was sentenced to 44 months in prison. In 2013, the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction. This judgment will however now make it tougher to prosecute people alleged for using menacing language on social media.
Via a majority of 8:1, the court ruled in favor of Anthony Elonis while exploring the boundaries of free speech online. The justices decided Elonis could not be convicted merely on a basis that a reasonable/prudent man might consider his comments threatening. The court said that the prosecution would be allowed to contest the case under the federal law under which the accused was booked only if Elonis himself intended his words as threats.
Elonis wrote the Facebook posts in 2010, when he was 27, after his wife left him. Written in the form of rap lyrics, he fantasized about killing her, knifing a female FBI agent and shooting schoolchildren. Another of his Facebook posts recounted a visit by an FBI agent in which he imagined murdering her: "Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat/ Leave her bleedin’ from her jugular in the arms of her partner." After a court granted his wife a protective order against him, Elonis posted: "Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?" They were subsequently divorced. Elonis is currently reportedly in a jail in Pennsylvania on unrelated assault charges for throwing a pot at a woman.
Seven justices voted to throw out his conviction, while Justice Samuel Alito said he would have sent the case back to an appeals court to decide. The case touched upon the rise of social media and how people use it to express strongly held feelings. Defence lawyers argued that his statements were little different from lyrics by performers like rapper Eminem and were meant as art or a form of therapy. The court's legal reasoning did not rest on free speech, instead focusing on Elonis' intent."Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant's mental state," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote of behalf of the court. Lower courts had said Elonis could be held responsible regardless of whether he believed his messages could be viewed as threatening.
In a separate opinion concurring in the judgment but not the rationale, Alito criticized the majority's legal reasoning, saying "attorneys and judges are left to guess" what level of intent is required for a conviction to stick.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the only justice who would have upheld the conviction outright. Thomas said the decision "throws everyone from appellate judges to everyday Facebook users into a state of uncertainty."
Read the Judgment here.