Anthony Elonis repeatedly said his violence- and hate-filled posts on Facebook were protected under the First Amendment, that he was within his constitutional rights to describe killing his ex-wife and blowing up an elementary school because he was practicing free speech. He maintained all along that his writing was “therapeutic,” that he didn’t intend to inflict any harm or damage any property.
On Monday, the US Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s conviction that Elonis illegally threatened people, saying that his words did not constitute a threat.
The highest court in the country heard this case back in December but waited a full six months to release an opinion, one many court watchers and media scholars suggested might establish new legal precedents for the First Amendment, rap lyrics as a kind of protected speech and how social media sites are policed and regulated. Instead, the court, in a 7-2 opinion, stayed clear of any such lightning rods.
During his initial trial, Elonis had asked a Pennsylvania court to instruct the jury that the prosecuting attorneys had to prove he intended to communicate a threat, a request the court denied. Instead, the jury was read a statement that described a “true threat” as occurring “when a defendant intentionally makes a statement in a context or under such circumstances wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflect bodily injury or take the life of an individual.”
That instruction “was an error,” writes Chief Justice John Roberts for the majority. “Federal crimimal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state. That understanding ‘took deep and early root in American soil,’ and Congress left it intact,” he says, citing an earlier court case.
Because the question of Elonis’ mental state at the time of the Facebook posts – made under a pseudonym, Tone Dougie, which he’s said is his rap name – was never discussed or questioned, the conviction cannot stand, Roberts says. On that grounds alone, the Court was not required to enter into consideration about First Amendment implications of this case or his initial conviction.
“Our holding makes clear that negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction… contrary to the view of the nine Courts of Appeals,” Roberts continues. “We thing that is more than sufficient justification for us to decline to be the first appellate tribunal to do so.”
The Third Court of Appeals, where Elonis petitioned for his conviction and 44-month jail sentence to be thrown out, gave instructions which required the jury to find “only negligence with respect to the communication of a threat,” something which “is not sufficient to support a conviction” under US law, Roberts says.
It is worth nothing that, in addition to his disclaimer statements on various Facebook posts filled with violent imagery and profanity-laden rap lyrics, Elonis never included his wife’s name, only references to his wife. He also never gave the name of a specific elementary school when suggesting he might attack one or blow it up. If nothing else, it appears he knew exactly what he was doing in order to protect himself from legal action.
Elonis was recently jailed on domestic abuse charges against the mother of his current girlfriend.