Messages posted on Facebook and Twitter or sent in e-mails can be tasteless, vulgar and even disturbing. When do they cross the line from free speech to threats that can be punished as a crime?
As the Internet allows people to quickly vent their frustrations, the US Supreme Court is being asked to clarify US First Amendment rights of people who use violent or threatening language online, where the speaker’s intent is not always clear. The First Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech and other basic rights.
The justices could decide as early as today whether to hear appeals in two cases where defendants were convicted and sent to jail for making illegal threats, despite their claims that they never meant any harm.
In one case, a Pennsylvania man ranted on Facebook in the form of rap lyrics about killing his estranged wife, blowing up an amusement park and committing “the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”
The other case involves a Florida woman who e-mailed a radio talk show host about “Second Amendment gun rights” and said she was planning “something big” at a government building or school. The US Constitution’s Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.
Her comments triggered a lockdown affecting more than 250,000 students.
Both defendants were prosecuted under a US statute that makes it a crime to transmit a “threat to injure the person of another.” Those laws apply only to “true threats” not protected by the First Amendment under a 1969 Supreme Court doctrine.
The US Supreme Court has said laws prohibiting threats must not infringe on constitutionally protected speech that includes “political hyperbole” or “vehement,” “caustic” or “unpleasantly sharp attacks.”
Most US courts say determining a true threat depends on how an objective person would understand the message.
However, lawyers for the defendants, along with some free-speech groups, say it should depend on the speaker’s state of mind. They say that new forms of social media and the freedom of political discourse can lead people to misinterpret comments that are colorful political tirades or coarse rap lyrics not meant to threaten harm.
The wife of Pennsylvania man Anthony Elonis testified at his trial that the posts made her fear for her life.
One post 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.”
Elonis said he never meant to carry out the threats, adding that he was depressed and wrote to vent his frustration after his wife left him.
Samuel Randall, attorney for Ellisa Martinez in the Florida case, said his client was attempting to make a mocking political point about the dangers of gun violence in her e-mail. He said Martinez never intended to cause such a big problem or harm anyone.