WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court considered Monday where to draw the line in protecting free speech on social media sites like Facebook.
The Court heard arguments in the case of a Pennslvania man convicted of making threatening statements about his estranged wife and law enforcement officials.
Anthony Elonis claims he did not intend to frighten anyone, that instead his writings were “therapeutic” and helped him deal with the sadness of his broken marriage.
Elonis’ attorney, John Elwood, told the high court the government must prove he intended to instill fear in others and make them feel threatened. “If he knows [his wife] is in fear he does not have the right to carry on,” Elwood said.
Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, arguing for the government, told the justices that it does not matter what Elonis intended, only whether a reasonable person would have felt threatened.
Dreeben said, “We want a standard to hold people accountable.” Arguing against the rap defenses, Dreeben argued in the context of rap lyrics, like those of rapper Eminem, “the clear purpose is entertainment.”
The justices questions suggested the case presents a struggle about what is a threat and what is just self-expression.
Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Dreeben using the example of someone who is not yet known as a rapper and therefore has no clear purpose of entertainment, asking, “What about the budding rapper who is writing his first rap song?”
Justice Samuel Alito commented, “This sounds like a road map for threatening a spouse and getting away with it. So you put it in a rhyme…and you say I’m an aspiring rap artist and so then you are free from prosecution.”
Justice Sonya Sotomayor said, “We’ve been loathe to create more exceptions to the First Amendment.”
Elonis was convicted of threatening to injure another person and sentenced to nearly four years in prison for posting writings such as, “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.”
Elonis claims he was just writing rap lyrics and venting. He also posted comments about law enforcement, writing, “I’ve got enough explosives to take care of the state police and the sheriff’s department.”
In yet another Facebook posting Elonis writes about making a name for himself by shooting up a local kindergarten class. Elonis wrote, “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 case is Elonis v. United States, 13-983.