The Supreme Court ruled Monday (8-1) against the conviction of a recently divorced Pennsylvania man who posted a series of explicit tirades against his ex-wife and law enforcement on Facebook.
Anthony Elonis, the so-called ‘Facebook rapper’, was convicted by a district court jury in 2010 under a federal law which makes it a crime to make “any threat to injure the person of another”, and sentenced to 44 months in prison for saying things like, he’d like to see his wife’s “head on a stick” for Halloween, and “Hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.”
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion for the Court, which held that offensive speech violates federal law only if it is intended to threaten someone, not because a “reasonable person” feels threatened, as the trial judge in Pennsylvania originally ruled.
“Federal criminal liability…does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state…negligence is not sufficient (to convict),” Chief Justice Roberts explained.
This standard for proof of guilt is much stricter than what the judge in the district trial instructed the jury to use, which was that the prosecution only had to demonstrate that Elonis’ communications were made intentionally, and that whether or not he meant to carry out his words were irrelevant.
“Juries are fully capable of distinguishing between metaphorical expression of strong emotions, and statements that have the clear sinister meaning of a threat,” State prosecutor’s argued. A point rejected by Chief Justice Roberts.
Elonis’ lawyers countered that their client never meant to act on his words, and that context and meaning can be easily confused without audio or visual evidence.
The case now returns to the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to determine whether Elonis meant what he posted on Facebook as “a communication for the purpose of issuing a threat, or with knowledge that the communication will be viewed as a threat.” If it is not proven he did so, Elonis may have a chance to sue the federal government in a civil trial for wrongful conviction.
Justice Thomas was the lone dissenter in the case.
“Failure to decide (Elonis’ guilt/innocence) throws everyone from appellate judges to everyday Facebook users into a state of uncertainty,” Justice Thomas warned.
Justice Alito, although voting with the majority, was equally pessimistic about the precedent set by the ruling.
“Attorney’s and judges are left to guess (what defines a communicative threat). This will have regrettable consequences,” Justice Alito wrote.
[New York Times] [USA Today]