• 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

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

    Alaska Native Heritage Center celebrates cultural visionaries

    by Liz Raines on Nov 29, 13:40

    The Alaska Native Heritage Center celebrated its sixth annual Visionary Awards Saturday night, as part of Alaska Native Heritage Month. Organizers say the goal was to showcase individuals that nurture and promote culture in their own unique way that is enticing to younger generations. Five Native Alaskan artists — Byron Nicholai, Samuel Johns, Allison Warden, […]

  • News

    Quiltmakers donate patchwork to benefit Alaska’s foster children

    by Eric Ruble on Nov 29, 12:11

    On Saturday, about 100 quiltmakers decided to donate their hard work in an effort to help others. A total of 217 quilts were on display at the University Center mall. All were up for sale via a silent auction to benefit Court Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA. The organization’s Alaska chapter helps abused and neglected […]

  • News

    Thousands turn out for 2015 Police Navidad

    by Eric Ruble on Nov 29, 11:31

    An estimated 6,000 people filled the Dena’ina Center Saturday for the fifth annual Police Navidad. The free festival is a chance for the Anchorage Police and Fire Departments to get to know their community in a “non-crisis” environment, says Dani Myren with the APD Employees Association. About 200 people were volunteering Saturday, many of which […]

  • News

    SmallBizSat: Anchorage business boasts local expertise as key to compete

    by Liz Raines on Nov 28, 19:01

    On Small Business Saturday, locally owned Skinny Raven Sports says it saw a big boost from last year’s sales. “There’s been a lot of feet through the door, which is awesome,” said general manager Ben Stolpman. “It shows that people value small business.” Despite the fact that you can find almost all of the products […]

  • Sports

    At Great AK Shootout, Wiggs lifts Seawolves to 71-65 win over Drexel

    by Jake Edmonds on Nov 28, 14:08

    The University of Alaska Anchorage men’s basketball team earned a second round win in the GCI Great Alaska Shootout Friday, defeating Drexel 71-65. The Seawolves were led by the junior stand-out Suki Wiggs, who had 33 points in the win. Wiggs is proving to be a huge asset for head coach Rusty Osbourne and the […]

  • News

    In Fairbanks, borough suspends ride share payments after no one signs up

    by Associated Press on Nov 28, 12:25

    Residents aren’t getting on board with ride sharing in the Fairbanks North Star Borough. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports (http://bit.ly/1YzWBoS) borough officials and Enterprise Holdings have agreed to suspend payments for a program that no one has signed up for since the company was hired in September 2014. Borough transportation manager Adam Barth says he […]

  • Crime

    Anchorage police seek wanted man, Dajon Hale

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Nov 28, 11:58

    The Anchorage Police Department is asking for the public’s help finding 26-year-old Dajon Hale, who currently has two felony warrants for his arrest. Police say in June, Hale was pulled over for speeding in a construction zone in the area of E. 56th Avenue and Lake Otis Parkway. The officer then discovered Hale was on probation […]

  • News

    Red Cross of Alaska speaks out for Giving Tuesday

    by KTVA CBS 11 News on Nov 27, 22:48

    After Thanksgiving, shoppers have a number of opportunities to save big: first there’s Black Friday, then Small Business Saturday and finally, Cyber Monday. Many use the sales in stores and online as a chance to get deals on Christmas presents for their loved ones, but the Red Cross of Alaska says Giving Tuesday is another […]