The Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania man who posted several threatening messages on Facebook toward his estranged wife and others. He was convicted under a federal threat statute. The Court held that the standard used to convict him was too low.
The Court said that it wasn't enough to convict him based solely on how a reasonable person would regard his communcations as a threat. The Court left open what standard should be used.
"Our holding makes clear that negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts.
The court ruled 8-1 in favor of Anthony Elonis in a case that explored the limits of free speech online.
The ruling marks the first time the Court addressed the implications of free speech on social media. It is a narrow ruling and the Court did not address the larger constitutional issue.
Anthony D. Elonis, a Pennsylvania man, posted several violent messages on his social media account after his wife left him. He claimed he was an artist who turned to rap lyrics for therapeutic purposes to help him cope with depression.
"There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you," he wrote in one message post.
In another he ranted, "Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined,".
He was convicted for violating a federal threat statute.
Elonis appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court arguing that the government should have been required to prove he actually intended to make a threat before sending him to jail for a 44 month term. Instead, the jury was told the standard was whether a "reasonable person" would have understood the words to be a threat.
John P. Elwood, Elonis' lawyer stressed in court briefs that his client often posted disclaimers noting he was only exercising his freedom of speech. "The First Amendment¹s basic command is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds it offensive or disagreeable," Elwood wrote. At trial , Elonis testified that his Facebook posts were partly inspired by rap star Eminem.
In a separate opinion concurring in the judgment but not the rationale, Alito criticized the majority's legal reasoning, saying "attorneys and judges are left to guess" what level of intent is required for a conviction to stick.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the only justice who would have upheld the conviction outright. Thomas said the decision "throws everyone from appellate judges to everyday Facebook users into a state of uncertainty."
The National Center for Victims of Crime, which filed court papers siding against Elonis, said the ruling will sow confusion.
"The laws governing social media require swift interpretation to keep pace with the ever-advancing criminal activity in this space. The justices today missed the opportunity to define the law and left the victims of this case and others in jeopardy," said Mai Fernandez, the group's executive director.