The case is Elonis v. U.S. Church and state The Supreme Court decided against reviewing an appeals court’s decision that a suburban Milwaukee school district had erred by holding high school graduation ceremonies in a local church, where students and their families were surrounded by religious artifacts and messages. Full Text The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider whether violent images and threatening language posted on Facebook and other social media constitute a true threat to others or simply the protected rants of someone imbued with what one advocate called “digital courage.” The court accepted the case of a Pennsylvania man who was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison for posting the ominous photos and making the violent rants on his Facebook page against former coworkers, law enforcement officials and especially his estranged wife. Anthony D. Elonis contends that the postings, which included the lyrics of songs by the rapper Eminem, were free speech attempts to deal with the pain of his personal problems and not specific threats to harm anyone.
The justices will consider the case in the term that begins in the fall. Elonis’s attorney, John P. Elwood, said the case presents an opportunity for the court to reconsider its traditional jurisprudence about how to gauge the seriousness of a threat in the modern age. “Communication online by email and social media has become commonplace, even as the norms and expectations for such communication remain unsettled,” the petition said. “The inherently impersonal nature of online communication makes such messages inherently susceptible to misinterpretation.” Elonis’s effort to have the court review the issue was supported by groups such as the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression.
It and two other free speech groups said the kinds of threats the court has considered in the past have “been supplanted by anonymous trolls wreaking havoc on message boards and individuals who, perhaps emboldened by too much ‘digital courage,’ treat the internet as a global sounding board where anything goes.” The brief said the court must consider “a new breed of threat cases informed by the internet, social media , and other revolutionary developments in communication that earlier cases never contemplated.”
The Obama administration, which did not want the court to take the case, said there was nothing particularly distinguishing or modern about Elonis’s threats, except for the forum. Elonis speculated about blowing up elementary schools and threatened coworkers. He posted about his estranged wife: “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.” When an FBI agent visited Elonis to discuss the postings, Elonis wrote later on Facebook: “Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the [expletive] ghost. Pull my knife, flick my wrist and slit her throat.” Elonis’s petition to the court said: “Although the language was as with popular rap songs addressing the same themes sometimes violent, petitioner posted explicit disclaimers in his profile explaining that his posts were ‘fictitious lyrics,’ and he was ‘only exercising [his] constitutional right to freedom of speech.