The U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing a case next week on whether violence-laden posts on Facebook constitute protected free speech or criminal acts that deserve prosecution.
Elonis v. United States stems from the conviction of Anthony Elonis, who served more than three years in prison for posting messages using rap-style prose to his wife Tara on Facebook that she took as threats. He was convicted under a federal law that prohibits the use of interstate communications of threats to harm individuals. In one post, Elonis indicated his desire to shoot Tara despite a court order requiring him to stay away.
According to Slate, one of his posts read: “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. Hurry up and die, bitch, so I can bust this nut all over your corpse from atop your shallow grave. I used to be a nice guy but then you became a slut. Guess it’s not your fault you liked your daddy raped you. So hurry up and die, bitch, so I can forgive you.”
The National Network to End Domestic Violence wrote in a brief filed with the Supreme Court that people “have experienced real-life terror caused by increasingly graphic and public posts to Facebook and other social media sites — terror that is exacerbated precisely because abusers now harness the power of technology, ‘enabling them to reach their victims’ everyday lives at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen,’” according to The Washington Post.
Elonis claimed he was merely venting and performing “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events” in his life, according to the Post.
His effort to have his conviction overturned is backed by free speech supporters who insist the statements should be protected under the First Amendment. The Student Press Law Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the writers’ organization PEN filed their own brief defending Elonis: “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.”
To Learn More:
Supreme Court Case Tests the Limits of Free Speech on Facebook and Other Social Media (by Robert Barnes, Washington Post)
Elonis v. United States (SCOTUS blog)
Supreme Court Social Media Rap-Lyrics Case Brings Eminem into the Fold (by David Kravets, Ars Technica)
Are Facebook Threats Real? (by Dahlia Lithwick, Slate)
Clicking “Like” on Facebook is Free Speech, But Online Hate May Be another Story (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)