The Supreme Court will decide whether the government can imprison a man for online death threats.
In agreeing to hear the case of Elonis v. United States, the Supreme Court will hear the case of Anthony Elonis, who made a series of Facebook posts, sometimes accompanied by disturbing images, in which he either violently threatened his ex-wife, a coworker, and an FBI agent, or simply expressed his emotions.
In October 2010, five months after his wife, Tara, left him and took the couple’s two children, Elonis posted a Facebook post that started his legal troubles, according to The New York Times. After similar posts – many of which she took as thinly-veiled death threats – his wife got an order of protection (called a PFA – Protection From Abuse order in Pennsylvania) against Anthony.
At about the same time Elonis was making the posts directed at his wife, he was targeting a coworker as well. At the time of the alleged death threats against his wife, Elonis was working at an amusement park near Allentown, Pennsylvania, said the Times. For Halloween, Elonis posted a picture of himself holding a fake knife to a coworker’s throat, with the caption “I wish.” His boss noticed the photo, fired Elonis, and contacted the FBI.
According to The Washington Post, Elonis responded to the FBI agent with the same panache he’d reserved for his coworker and his estranged wife: thinly-veiled death threats.
Elonis was charged with violating a federal law that criminalizes using electronic communication (such as the internet) to threaten to harm or injure another person.
Elonis attempted to defend himself by saying that his death threats and other violent posts were merely artistic expressions. In fact, says The Washington Post, Elonis even made it a point to take on a rapper persona, giving himself the name Tone Dougie, and made sure to include references to other rappers, their art, and the First Amendment, throughout his posts. Elonis then served three years in federal prison.
In taking Elonis’ case, the Supreme Court will have to decide on the role that social media plays with regard to death threats, and other threats of violence.