The Limits of Free Speech

Paul Overbee, MJLST Editor

A large portion of society does not put much thought into what they post on the internet. From tweets and status updates to YouTube comments and message board activities, many individuals post on impulse without regard to how their messages may be interpreted by a wider audience. Anthony Elonis is just one of many internet users that are coming to terms with the consequences of their online activity. Oddly enough, by posting on Facebook Mr. Elonis took the first steps that ultimately led him to the Supreme Court. The court is now considering whether the posts are simply a venting of frustration as Mr. Elonis claims, or whether the posts constitute a “true threat” that will direct Mr. Elonis directly to jail.

The incident in question began a week after Tara Elonis obtained a protective order against her husband. Upon receiving the order, Mr. Elonis posted to Facebook, “Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket […] Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?” According the Mr. Elonis, he was trying to emulate the rhyming styles of the popular rapper Eminem. At a later date, an FBI agent visited Mr. Elonis regarding his threatening posts about his wife. Soon after the agent left, Mr. Elonis again returned to Facebook to state “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.”

Due to these posts, Mr. Elonis was sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison, and Elonis v. United States is now in front of the Supreme Court. Typical state statutes define these “true threats” without any regard to whether the speaker actually intended to cause such terror. For example, Minnesota’s “terroristic threats” statute includes “reckless disregard of the risk of causing such terror.” Some states allow for a showing of “transitory anger” to overcome a “true threat” charge. This type of defense arises where the defendant’s actions are short-lived, have no intent to terrorize, and clearly are tied to an inciting event that caused the anger.

The Supreme Court’s decision will carry wide First Amendment implications for free speech rights and artistic expression. A decision that comes down harshly on Mr. Elonis may have the effect of chilling speech on the internet. The difference between a serious statement and one that is joking many times depends on the point of view of the reader. Many would rather stop their posting on the internet instead of risk having their words misinterpreted and charges brought. On the other hand, if the Court were to look towards the intent of Mr. Elonis, then “true threat” statutes may lose much of their force due to evidentiary issues. A decision in favor of Mr. Elonis may lead to a more violent internet where criminals such as stalkers have a longer leash in which to persecute their victims. Oral argument on the case was held on December 1, 2014, and a decision will be issued in the near future.