This case is noteworthy because this is a case of first impression before the Supreme Court. This is the first case the Court has raised the implications related to social media; however, it will not be the last. This is a case that the U.S. Supreme Court decided related to the First Amendment and making violent messages on Facebook. With all of the social media today and the ability for everyone to have an opinion, I am glad to know that Free Speech is still the law of the land. Our Founding Fathers would be proud of the Court today.
The case originated in Pennsylvania, Elonis v. Unites States. A Pennsylvania man, Elonis, was charged in federal court for making violent messages on his Facebook page. His wife had recently left him and the government alleged that the Facebook messages were threats. Elonis claimed that the messages were rap lyrics to help him cope with depression. In fact, Elonis testified in his own defense that some of the lyrics were loosely based on Eminem’s rap music.
The district court sentenced Elonis to 44 months in federal prison. His argument on appeal was that the government should have been required to prove he actually intended to make a threat. The trial court told the jury that a conviction could be based on whether a “reasonable person” would have understood the words to be a threat. The Supreme Court held that it wasn’t enough to convict the man based solely on the idea that a reasonable person would regard his communications as a threat.
“Our holding makes clear that negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. The Court held that the legal standard used to convict him was too low, but left open what the standard should be.
Elonis’ lawyer stressed in court briefs that his client often posted disclaimers noting he was only exercising his freedom of speech. “The First Amendment basic command is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds it offensive or disagreeable.”
The ACLU filed a brief in support of Elonis arguing that context matters. “Words are slippery things,” wrote Stephen Shapiro. He said that a statute that limits speech “without regard to the speaker’s intended meaning” runs the risk of punishing protected First Amendment expression.
John Elwood, appellant’s counsel, did an excellent job in defending his client in this case. The government did not meet its burden of proof in this case and the court gave the wrong instructions to the jury. While this case was limited to Elonis, it will have a lasting impact on other individuals that may be charged with similar cases in the future.
Freedom of speech is an important right in a free society. While we can all disagree about the content of speech, we as citizens should be allowed to free speech without the threat of the government putting us in jail for speaking our mind. Chalk one up for the good guys!