• Forecast
  • News Tip
  • Categories
Temperature Precipitation
Estimated read time
3m 14s

Threatening Facebook posts prompt Supreme Court review

By CBS/AP 5:50 PM June 16, 2014
WASHINGTON –

The Supreme Court will consider the free speech rights of people who use violent or threatening language on Facebook and other electronic media where the speaker’s intent is not always clear.

The court on Monday agreed to take up the case of an eastern Pennsylvania man sentenced to nearly four years in federal prison for posting violent online rants against his estranged wife, law enforcement officials and former co-workers.

A federal appeals court rejected Anthony Elonis’ claim that his comments were protected by the First Amendment. He says he never meant to carry out the threats. He claims he was depressed and made the online posts in the form of rap lyrics as a way of venting his frustration after his wife left him.

At his trial, the jury was instructed that Elonis could be found guilty if an objective person could consider his posts to be threatening. Attorneys for Elonis argue that the jury should have been told to apply a subjective standard and decide whether Elonis meant the messages to be understood as threats.

Elonis’s lawyers say a subjective standard is appropriate given the impersonal nature of communication over the Internet, which can lead people to misinterpret messages. They argue that comments intended for a smaller audience can be viewed by others unfamiliar with the context and interpret the statements differently than was intended.

The Obama administration says requiring proof of a subjective threat would undermine the purpose of the federal law prohibiting threats.

The high court said it will consider whether conviction of threatening another person under federal law “requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten.”

For more than 40 years, the Supreme Court has said that “true threats” to harm another person are not protected speech under the First Amendment. But the court has cautioned that laws prohibiting threats must not infringe on constitutionally protected speech. That includes “political hyperbole” or “unpleasantly sharp attacks” that fall shy of true threats.

The federal statute targeting threats of violence is likely to be used more often in the coming years “as our speech increasingly migrates from in-person and traditional handwritten communication to digital devices and the Internet,” said Clay Calvert, a law professor at the University of Florida.

Calvert, one of several free speech advocates who submitted a legal brief urging the court to use a subjective standard, said people mistakenly seem to feel that they can get away with more incendiary speech on the Internet, in tweets and in texts.

Elonis’ estranged wife testified at his trial the postings made her fear for her life. One post about his wife said, “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.”

FBI agents visited Elonis at home after the amusement park that fired him contacted law enforcement officials about his posts. After the agents left, Elonis wrote: “Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the (woman) ghost. Pull my knife, flick my wrist and slit her throat.”

The case is Elonis v. United States, 13-983.

In 2012, a British man was charged after posting an offensive status update on Facebook about an abducted 5-year-old girl. Matthew Woods was charged by British police under section 127 of the U.K. Communications Act 2003, which found that his message was “grossly offensive” or “of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Latest Stories

  • News

    Murkowski expresses concern about North Korean cyber hack

    by Lauren Maxwell on Dec 19, 22:31

    Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Friday she is very concerned now that the U.S. has established a link between the North Korean government and a recent hacking attack against Sony. The senator said the Secretary of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, considers the cyber attack a  national threat. “This hacking is directly linked to North Korea, there’s […]

  • Lifestyle

    VIDEO: Minnesota climber begins solo ascent of Denali

    by John Thain on Dec 19, 21:45

      TALKEETNA - Climbing season on Denali is long over, but for Lonnie Dupre, it’s just beginning. The 53-year-old Minnesota man is attempting to be the first person to summit it alone in January. It’s his fourth attempt after trying similar expeditions in 2013, 2012, and 2011. The closest he came was just over 17,000 feet […]

  • News

    ‘Shop with a Cop, Shop with a Firefighter’ brings Christmas cheer

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Dec 19, 21:28

    For many of Anchorage’s homeless kids, interactions with police officers or firefighters happen during less-than-happy times. A local program called “Shop with a Cop, Shop with a Firefighter” aims to change that. Now in its fifteenth year, the Friday event gave 50 kids the opportunity to go Christmas shopping with a partner in uniform. Everything […]

  • News

    Neglected sled dogs find new homes

    by Shannon Ballard on Dec 19, 20:24

    A few weeks ago, the Anchorage Animal Care and Control Center seized 12 hungry dogs from musher Dario Martinez’s kennel: Martinez had disappeared and was later found dead of an apparent suicide, police said. On Friday, some of his dogs were healthy enough to find a new home. The line formed outside AACCC well before […]

  • Weather

    Weekend weather, Dec. 19

    by KTVA Weather on Dec 19, 19:54

    Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound Mostly cloudy skies and dry throughout Southcentral. Southeast Mostly rainy from Sitka to the south with snow for Skagway. Interior and North Slope Partly cloudy skies. Wind in the southeastern areas by Delta Junction. Slope areas will be cloudy with some flurries on and off. Mat-Su Valley Partly cloudy […]

  • News

    Willow fire displaces Iditarod musher, dogs

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Dec 19, 17:39

    An Iditarod musher, her husband and dogs were temporarily left out in the cold after a fire destroyed their Willow home Friday. Neither Jaimee nor Justin High were home when the blaze broke out, and the 24 sled dogs kept at the property were unharmed by the fire. For now, the couple is staying with […]

  • News

    Federal court puts gray wolf back on endangered species list

    by CBS/AP on Dec 19, 15:38

    A federal judge on Friday threw out an Obama administration decision to remove the gray wolf population in the western Great Lakes region from the endangered species list — a decision that will ban further wolf hunting and trapping in three states. The order affects wolves in Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The U.S. Fish and […]

  • News

    Bomb threat delays T-Bird Classic

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Dec 19, 15:06

    East High School was briefly placed on lockdown — then evacuated — following a bomb threat Friday afternoon, according to the Anchorage School District. School was not in session Friday, but the T-Bird Classic basketball tournament drew dozens of high school athletes and spectators to the high school gym. Heidi Embley, a spokeswoman for the […]