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US to decide if threats via FB are free speech

HARMLESS? The case involves a rap-music enthusiast who posted a death threat against his wife on his Facebook page after she left him.


    Dec 01, 2014

    US to decide if threats via FB are free speech


    THE United States Supreme Court will consider a ground-breaking case today about whether those who post death threats on Facebook are liable to prosecution or whether threatening comments are protected by constitutional rights to free speech.

    It will be the first time the top court's nine justices - who are not known to have Facebook accounts of their own - will consider the limits of First Amendment protections on free speech on social media.

    The case involves Anthony Elonis, a rap-music enthusiast who posted angry lyrics on his Facebook page aimed at his wife after she left him, taking their two children.

    "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. Hurry up and die, bitch," Elonis posted after the messy break-up ended seven years of marriage.

    His abusive language extended beyond his broken marriage. After a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent visited him, Elonis said he would blow the agent up, then threatened an amusement park he had been fired from and posted about shooting up nearby schools.

    He even mused about laws against uttering death threats.

    "Did you know that it's illegal for me to say, 'I want to kill my wife?' It's illegal. It's indirect criminal contempt...Now it was okay for me to say it right then, because I was just telling you that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife," he wrote.

    He was arrested and charged with communicating threats in interstate commerce, or the Internet.

    At trial, Elonis argued that he posted the messages "without a specific intent" to kill, and said writing the lyrics made him feel better after the split.

    "This is helped me to deal with the pain," he told the court.

    But a jury did not agree, and he was sentenced to 44 months in prison and three years of supervised release. An appeals court later upheld the conviction.

    The case could have repercussions on violence and harassment on the Internet and how the First Amendment - which protects freedom of speech - applies in the realm of social media.

    The Supreme Court will decide whether Elonis' comments constitute a "true threat" or were harmless because he did not intend to act on his words, as he argued.

    US law defines threats as "statements that a reasonable person would interpret as a serious expression of intent to do harm". The government argues that "a bomb threat that appears to be serious is equally harmful regardless of the speaker's private state of mind".

    Several anti-domestic-violence groups have weighed in with briefs in support of the government's position as the case goes before the top court.

    Elonis, meanwhile, contends that his conviction would impact many artists, including singers, writers and cartoonists, who express themselves creatively.

    Law professor Steven Schwinn said that under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has consistently acted to protect the right to free expression.

    "In each case, it struck the ban or restriction as infringing on First Amendment rights," said Prof Schwinn, from John Marshall Law School.

    "When it comes to these types of low-value - even harmful - speech, the Roberts court has been clear: If you don't like the speech, speak out against it; but the government cannot ban it.

    "Given this trend, it is hard to see how this court would rule against Elonis."