Supreme Court May Define The Point At Which Protected Speech Becomes An Unprotectable ‘Threat’

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This is a very interesting and relevant question as this will the first time the Supreme Court considers this issue in an online context.

Via ARS Technica:

When does an online threat become worthy of criminal prosecution?

The Supreme Court is being asked to decide that unanswered question as prosecutions for online rants, from Facebook to YouTube, are becoming commonplace. Authorities are routinely applying an old-world 1932 statute concerning extortion to today’s online world, where words don’t always mean what they seem.

The latest case involving the legal parameters of online speech before the justices concerns a Pennsylvania man sentenced to 50 months in prison after being convicted on four counts of the interstate communication of threats. Defendant Anthony Elonis’ 2010 Facebook rant concerned attacks on an elementary school, his estranged wife, and even law enforcement.

“That’s it, I’ve had about enough/ I’m checking out and making a name for myself/ Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius/ to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined/ and hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class/ the only question is … which one?” read one of Elonis’ posts.

It won’t be the first time the justices have been asked to resolve the issue.

That’s because there are regularly fresh media accounts of defendants handed lengthy prison terms for their online speech. Weeks ago, for example, another Pennsylvania man was handed up to a six-year term for a YouTube rap video threatening police officers.

In the Elonis case pending before the Supreme Court, the 30-year-old contends that the authorities never proved he intended to threaten anybody. But a federal appeals court in September ruled that the standard of proof is whether a reasonable person—the target of the rant—would deem the online speech threatening.

So the Third US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Elonis’ sentence and conviction. He appealed to the Supreme Court.

Whatever a so-called “true threat” is, it’s not protected under the First Amendment. Whether online or not, other forms of speech that do not enjoy the backing of the constitution include child pornography and obscenity.

The Supreme Court a decade ago described true threats in a Virginia cross burning decision as “statements where the speaker means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals.”

What do you think, should people be allowed  to hide behind their computer when making threats to do harm, injure or worse  to another person or their property?