Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Do Online Death Threats Count as Free Speech?

Exhibit 12 in the government’s case against Anthony Elonis is a screenshot of a Facebook post he wrote in October 2010, five months after his wife, Tara, left him. His name appears in the site’s familiar blue, followed by words that made Tara fear for her life: ‘'If I only knew then what I know now . . . I would have smothered your ass with a pillow. Dumped your body in the back seat. Dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like a rape and murder.'’

Exhibit 13, also pulled from Facebook, is a thread that started when Tara’s sister mentioned her plans to take her niece and nephew — Elonis’s children — shopping for Halloween costumes. Tara responded and then Elonis did, too, saying their 8-year-old son ‘'should dress up as a Matricide.'’ He continued: ‘'I don’t know what his costume would entail though. Maybe your head on a stick?'’ This time, Elonis included a photo of himself, holding a cigarette to his lips.

After Tara saw these posts — and another one, from the same time, which begins: ‘'There’s one way to love ya but a thousand ways to kill ya. I’m not gonna rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts'’ — she went to court in Reading, Pa., and got a protection-from-abuse order against her husband.

On Nov. 7, three days after Tara got the ruling, Elonis linked to a video satire by the comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U’ Know. On camera, a member of the group mocks the law against threatening to kill the president. Elonis mimicked the group’s lines but subbed in his own text, to make it about Tara. ‘'I also found out that it’s incredibly illegal, extremely illegal to go on Facebook and say something like the best place to fire a mortar launcher at her house would be from the cornfield behind it because of easy access to a getaway road and you’d have a clear line of sight through the sun room,'’ he wrote. ‘'Yet even more illegal to show an illustrated diagram.'’ Elonis added a diagram with a getaway road, a cornfield and a house. ‘'Art is about pushing limits,'’ his post concluded. ‘'I’m willing to go to jail for my Constitutional rights. Are you?'’

At the same time that he was posting about Tara, Elonis used Facebook to threaten his co-workers at an amusement park in nearby Allentown, where he worked. In one photo, from Halloween, Elonis held a fake knife to a co-worker’s neck. They were both dressed in costume, but Elonis added the caption, ‘'I wish.'’ His boss saw the image and caption and fired Elonis. He also called the F.B.I. In December 2010, Elonis was charged under a federal law that makes it a crime to use a form of interstate communication (like the Internet) to threaten to injure another person.

A jury convicted Elonis, and he spent more than three years in prison. On December 1, the Supreme Court will hear Elonis’s First Amendment challenge to his conviction — the first time the justices have considered limits for speech on social media. For decades, the court has essentially said that ‘'true threats'’ are an exception to the rule against criminalizing speech. These threats do not have to be carried out — or even be intended to be carried out — to be considered harmful. Bans against threats may be enacted, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in 2003, to protect people ‘'from the fear of violence'’ and ‘'from the disruption that fear engenders.'’ Current legal thinking is that threats do damage on their own.


I think SCOTUS will throw out this case, as they should.  I am not sure that the guy belongs in prison, though.  He sounds quite a sicko.  Permanent confinement to a mental institution would probably be best for him.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately justice works in a perverse way when bureaucrats are in a position to decide other peoples future. They interfere when true criminal intention is displayed and release the aggressors back on the street to continue their sadistic behaviour. Time for a revamp of the legal system.

stinky said...

Not sure that psychopaths belong in either the prison system OR in a mental hospital, John. There's really no good place for them. Perhaps s special "psychopath central" prison?

Anonymous said...

The existing prison system only teaches sociopaths what they have to do to avoid prosecution. Prisons have largely become education systems for criminals. Prisoners should have to work to pay the cost of prosecuting and incarcerating them.