The Supreme Court said this morning that it will hear a free speech case regarding things Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) users post on the social network. The case deals with threats that are made on social media and determining when those threats become criminal.
Man posted about killing his wife on Facebook
USA Today reports that the case dates from 2010 when Anthony Elonis said on his Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) page that he was thinking about killing his wife and other people. The FBI was reportedly investigating him, and he apparently made some comments about killing the agent who was investigating him as well. According to the case, Elonis made many comments about killing people on his Facebook page.
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Two lower federal courts ruled that the comments he made were illegal, saying that they were “indirect criminal contempt,” according to one of Elonis’ posts on his Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) account. He reportedly wrote a very long post nearly quoting satire from The Whitest Kids U’ Know, a comedy group. He then summed up his comments by saying that he was “willing to go to jail” for his constitutional rights.
Did the Facebook user really intend to do it?
The attorneys representing Elonis maintain that he never actually intended to carry out the killings. The Supreme Court will have to decide whether the comments he made would be seriously threatening to a “reasonable person.”
He was said to have made the comments about killing his wife after she left him. They had been married for seven years, and she took their two children when she left. After that, he lost his job as well and began posting numerous dark thoughts on Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB), usually taking the form of lyrics to a rap song. He claimed that his dark rants helped him deal with his problems in a therapeutic manner and that he never actually intended to kill anyone.
Facebook threats intensify
However, his wife obtained a court order for “protection from abuse.” The result was more angry Facebook Inc (NASDAQ:FB) posts directed at an even wider range of people. Then later that same year, police arrested him and sentenced him to 44 months in prison plus three years of supervised release.
Officials convicted Elonis on a state law which states: Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”
The Supreme Court wades into the fray
In the past, the Supreme Court has refused to hear cases like this. The court refused to hear a petition from a man accused of threatening to kill a judge in his child custody case. He reportedly made the threat on YouTube. Now, however, the Court apparently think it’s time to look into the impact social media has on crime and alleged crime.
According to USA Today, the current precedent on this subject is from a ruling the court made 11 years ago. That case, Virginia v. Black, had nothing to do with social media or the Internet. Instead, it was about cross burning. The ruling stated that a state law which said cross burning is intimidation was not constitutional because not all cross burning is meant to be a threat. In that case, the only Supreme Court justice who was black, Clarence Thomas, dissented.