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NY TIMES EDITORIAL: The Court and Online Threats
« on: June 03, 2015, 06:16:56 AM »

The Court and Online Threats


If you post violent thoughts about someone on Facebook, does it matter what you intended to convey when you wrote the words?
In a 8-1 decision issued on Monday morning, the Supreme Court said yes.
If the government wants to criminally prosecute someone for his or her words, the court ruled, it must do more than show that a reasonable person would have interpreted those words as threats.

“Wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for a seven-member majority. In the age of the Internet, when anyone can post anything for the world to see, it was an important affirmation of the need to protect speech, and to require the government to meet a stricter legal standard when trying to punish people for their words alone.

The case involved a man named Anthony Elonis, who wrote a series of violent Facebook posts to express his anger after his wife left him in 2010, taking their two children with her.

“There’s one way to love ya but a thousand ways to kill ya,” he wrote in one post. “I’m not gonna rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”

Mr. Elonis posted many other messages with violent imagery involving bombing a police station, slitting the throat of an F.B.I. agent who visited him to ask about the posts, and shooting up a classroom of local kindergarten students. Several mimicked rap lyrics, or included references to the First Amendment.

Mr. Elonis was convicted under a federal law that makes it a crime to send a message threatening harm to others. He said he never intended to threaten anyone, and appealed on the grounds that the judge instructed the jury not to consider his intent. He claimed that his posts were simply a part of his “on-line persona” and were “therapeutic” only.

He lost, and spent more than three and a half years in prison before being released in 2014.

In reversing the conviction, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that it mattered what Mr. Elonis was thinking as he wrote his posts. The decision rejected the rule used in 9 out of the country’s 11 federal appeals courts, which applied the lenient “reasonable person” standard to the vaguely worded anti-threat law. But while that standard is appropriate for civil cases, the chief justice wrote, “federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.”
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The court did not decide the First Amendment issues raised by Mr. Elonis. Nor did it establish what mental state must exist to convict someone under the law, prompting Justice Samuel Alito Jr., who agreed with the outcome, to warn that the ruling “is certain to cause confusion and serious problems” for lawyers and judges around the country.
But the majority opinion said that the court could reconsider other, stricter standards after lower courts had had a chance to apply them.

Of course, nothing in the ruling stops prosecutors from bringing charges when they believe they can make the case that messages were sent with the intent to threaten or with a reckless disregard for that probability. On the other hand, if the court had upheld the lower standard used in the Elonis case, it would make it easier to criminalize all sorts of violent speech that flies around the Internet every day, much of it not intended to threaten anyone.

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Supreme Court Overturns Conviction in Online Threats Case, Citing Intent

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday made it harder to prosecute people for threats made on Facebook and other social media, reversing the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who directed brutally violent language against his estranged wife.

« Last Edit: June 03, 2015, 06:18:31 AM by UltraTime »
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