• 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

  • Politics

    Deadline looms for decision on Alaska sex education bill

    by Becky Bohrer / AP on Jul 28, 12:48

    Thursday marked the deadline for Gov. Bill Walker to decide what to do with legislation containing provisions that critics say would make it more difficult for public school students to receive comprehensive sex education. Walker had three options: he could sign the bill, veto it or let it become law without his signature. The bill, […]

  • News

    Flooding forces temporary closure of Anchorage public assistance office

    by Associated Press on Jul 28, 11:40

    Flood damage has forced the temporary closure of a state public assistance office in Anchorage. The department of health says its public assistance office on Muldoon Road will be closed until Aug. 8. Department spokesman Clay Butcher said the closure could last longer if carpeting needs to be replaced or something else unforeseen happens. He […]

  • Politics

    Alaska Democratic chair: Higher standard for women leaders like Hillary Clinton

    by Becky Bohrer / AP on Jul 28, 11:08

    The chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic party says the party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, and all woman leaders are held to a higher standard than men. Casey Steinau says the perception is that Clinton has to come across as “warm,” but no one is saying Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump isn’t warm enough. Steinau says […]

  • Crime

    Anchorage police investigating Wednesday night homicide

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jul 28, 9:37

    Police have charged an Anchorage man with two counts of murder following a late night stabbing, according to a Thursday morning release. Around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, the Anchorage Police Department was called to a “possible homicide” at the 900 block of East 46th Court in Midtown. When officers arrived, they found 33-year-old Kelly Frederick being […]

  • Lifestyle

    394-year-old Shakespeare book on display in Juneau

    by Associated Press on Jul 28, 8:27

    Alaska’s state library has opened a new exhibit featuring a nearly 400-year-old William Shakespeare book containing 36 plays. The Juneau Empire reports visitors to the Alaska State Library, Archives and Museum in Juneau can view Shakespeare’s First Folio through Aug. 24. The visiting copy of the book, printed in 1623, is one of only 234 […]

  • Crime

    Former teller charged with credit union embezzlement

    by Associated Press on Jul 28, 8:08

    A 23-year-old Anchorage resident was arraigned this week on a charge of embezzling from a credit union. Federal prosecutors say Shanice Mano took more than $100,000 from her former employer, Credit Union 1. Mano was a teller at the credit union. Prosecutors say she accessed customer accounts without authority and transferred money to accounts that […]

  • Lifestyle

    ‘Timeless and ageless’: Celebrating Lauren Maxwell’s 3 decades of journalism

    by Jessica Stugelmayer on Jul 28, 7:03

    Many things in Alaska have stood the test of time. People, especially those who aren’t born here, don’t always make the cut. Lauren Maxwell began her career with KTVA 11 News on this day 30 years ago. Back then, the whole town was younger, seedier and steeped in money. “I’ve been lucky to have covered […]

  • News

    UPDATE: Police locate missing 4-year-old girl

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Jul 27, 20:58

    Last updated at 10:20 p.m. on Wednesday, July 27 Four-year-old Alyiah Touyon has been located and is safe, according to Anchorage police spokesperson Jennifer Castro. “Officers located her down the street at a residence a couple blocks away,” said Castro. “She’s safe and okay.” About 30 people turned out to help search for Touyon, but […]