WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 online rants about killing his estranged wife, shooting up a school and slitting the throat of an FBI agent.
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' 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.
Continue reading this story on the...