This Monday, June 1, 2015, the Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited decision in Elonis v. United States. In a 7-2 ruling by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., the Court narrowed the circumstances under which individuals can be convicted of making criminal threats under federal law when they post statements on social media like Facebook. At the same time, the Court showed a prudent inclination to tread cautiously in a difficult area.
After Anthony Elonis’s wife left him, he began to write graphically violent rap lyrics and post them to his Facebook account. In several posts, he fantasized about murdering his estranged wife. Others contained violent thoughts about the workplace from which he had been fired, his former co-workers, and an FBI agent who had investigated the matter. In one post, he even talked about massacring a local kindergarten class.
Elonis was tried and convicted in federal court of four counts of violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), a 1939 law that makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another.” The trial judge instructed the jury that, under this statute, it is not necessary for the prosecution to prove that the defendant intended his statements to be threatening. Rather, it is enough to prove that the defendant reasonably should have known that other people would take his statements to be threats—a standard that is often referred to as negligence. (more…)