Be Careful What You Post: Social Media and Free Speech

MarisaSnelson-Ono

How far can a threat posted on Facebook go to be considered a legitimate safety concern?
Would restricting an individual’s rights to posting be considered a violation of the First Amendment? One man argues just that, taking his case to the Supreme Court.

A Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, was arrested and convicted for posting threatening posts towards his estranged wife on his Facebook page. He began writing these posts back in 2010 when his wife left him and took their two children. Elonis used violent, descriptive language in the posts, including statements such as, “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”

His wife, fearing for her safety, successfully filed a restraining order against Elonis. After violating the restraining order, he was arrested, and was sentenced to four years in prison. Yet, he continued to post threatening messages, now directed at even more people. One of these posts directed at his wife stated, “Fold up your protective order and put [it] in your pocket. Is it thick enough
to stop a bullet?”

Elonis insists that the posts were not meant to be taken seriously, that he was writing rap lyrics as a form of venting—not something to be taken too seriously. He says that the process was “therapeutic” for him in working out the sadness of his wife leaving him.

The main question behind this case is the intent of the man behind the words. When the man posted the threats, was there a motive to actually harm his wife? That is where the prosecutors come in. “How does one prove what’s in somebody else’s mind?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked Mr. Elonis’s lawyer.

In addition, if posting threatening messages online were to be banned by law, some fear that it could lead to the suppression of the First Amendment right to free speech. By expressing his thoughts and ideas online, Elonis insists that he was simply exercising this right.

“That concern is all the more pressing in the online context,” his lawyer said, since, “many of the people who are being prosecuted now are teenagers who are essentially shooting off their mouths or making sort of ill-timed, sarcastic comments, which wind up getting them thrown in jail.”

Hence, Should verbal intimidation be an accepted form of free speech? That is up to the judges in this case to decide.

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