In a case that will have broad implications for social media posts, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the appeal of Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison for threatening remarks he made online toward his wife, an FBI agent, and former coworkers.
When Elonis stood trial in 2010, a lower federal court rejected the claim his comments were protected by the First Amendment. Elonis, who said he was depressed when his wife of seven years left him, maintained that he never intended to carry out his threats, which took the form of rap lyrics posted to Facebook.
“Did you know that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?” he wrote in one of his posts. “It’s illegal. It’s indirect criminal contempt. It’s one of the only sentences that I’m not allowed to say.”
At the heart of the debate is the question of what constitutes a threat: the perpetrator’s subjective intent or another person’s objective interpretation. Objective interpretation was the jury’s basis for convicting Elonis, who has since completed his 44-month prison sentence.
According to a recent poll surveying 1,007 Americans, 62% of Internet users who were harassed online said it happened on Facebook, and more than two-thirds said they knew their online assailants in real life.