The Supreme Court may take up the question of whether or not communicated threats are still threats even if the person making the statement doesn't necessarily have the ability or the intent to carry them out. In short, at what point does it turn from protectable speech into something the First Amendment won't cover?
The latest case involving the legal parameters of online speech before the justices concerns a Pennsylvania man sentenced to 50 months in prison after being convicted on four counts of the interstate communication of threats. Defendant Anthony Elonis' 2010 Facebook rant concerned attacks on an elementary school, his estranged wife, and even law enforcement.
"That's it, I've had about enough/ I'm checking out and making a name for myself/ Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius/ to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined/ and hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class/ the only question is … which one?" read one of Elonis' posts.
This is a subject
we've discussed several times
previously. People (mainly teens) have made statements
and comments via social media that have veered close to being threats, but once investigated, turn out to be nothing more than stupid kids being stupid
. Prosecutors and law enforcement have made some questionable decisions in their attempts to portray youthful indiscretions as the words of would-be killers, such as withholding the surrounding context
or willfully misreading
the words themselves.
Elonis' case is a bit more complicated. For one, Elonis is 30 years old. While growing older doesn't necessarily make you immune from stupidity, the expectations are a bit higher in terms of online discourse. It's a little harder to claim you're running on the same high-octane concoction of hormones and blood displacement that teenage boys are. Not that all youthful indiscretions are excusable, but given that age group's tendency towards disproportionate drama in all things, it does make it more understandable.
In addition, Elonis' statements were directed at a variety of targets, any of which would seem to be a viable recipient for his anger. Not only did Elonis mention shooting up a school (specifically a kindergarten), but he also apparently had dire "plans" for his wife and local law enforcement. Again, the post-Sandy Hook law enforcement/judicial mentality
further clouds the issue, raising the question that if Elonis had left out the part about the school shooting, would he still be facing 30 months in prison? (Of course, threatening law enforcement tends to create just as much of a legal mess, usually one far worse than simply threatening your estranged spouse does…)
But the odds are fairly long that the Supreme Court will find the ability
to carry out the threat matters as much as the perception of everyone else but the person making the statement.
Only one federal appeals court has sided with Elonis' contention that the authorities must prove that the person who made the threat actually meant to carry it out. Eight other circuit courts of appeal, however, have ruled that the standard is whether a "reasonable person" would conclude the threat was real.
This long shot is also reliant on another
long shot: that the administration will support this appeal. A similar case involving an Iraq War vet was greeted by the White House with a written petition asking the Supreme Court to reject the case. These two obstacles make it unlikely that the judicial system will start treating so-called "threats" any differently than they have in the past. And it's a very long past. David Kravets at Ars Technica points out that the statute being applied to these cases originated in 1932.
There are legitimate threats and these are rightly not treated as free speech. But there are others that are treated as legitimate threats even when there's no evidence the person uttering them has the ability, much less the intention to back up their unfortunate statements. Applying a 1932 statute to the wide open discourse platform that is the internet is doing little more than putting loudmouths and idiots in jail. Those who mean actual harm to others generally don't enlighten their future targets via Twitter, Facebook and forum posts.
By all means, potential threats should
be investigated, but the courts need to come to the realization that these statements cannot be entirely robbed of their context (including intent and ability) and presented "as is" to the hypothetical "reasonable person." Reasonable people are completely capable of understanding that not every hurtful word can actually hurt
someone, nor do they believe every "threat" is the sign of impending danger. Not only should the statute be reconsidered, but so should the court's "reasonable person" ideal.