Not A Crime Unless Intended as a Threat

When it comes to social media, we are always hearing we should take caution with one thing: Be careful what you post. In the past, many people have gotten in trouble with employers and family over things that they have said in statuses or captions, and the effects of such have caused a damper on their overall lifestyles. So, is it true that online rants can be seen as criminal threats? Where does one draw the line and what comes into play in a ruling?

Elonis v. United States Ruling

On June 1, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Pennsylvania man named Anthony Elonis, revolving around his case of posting violent messages on his Facebook social media platform. Originally, Elonis was convicted under a federal threat statute, which was the first time that the Court actually raised implications of free speech being utilized on social media. Why did Elonis take such drastic measures to use his Facebook for threatening messages in the first place? He wanted to make it apparent with the Court that he was a rap artist and turned to writing lyrics for therapy to cope with the depression of his wife leaving him. However, his posts took things to new limits with posts like, “Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined” and “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”

After Elonis’ ex-wife saw these posts, she went about obtaining a protective order against him. Elonis continued to post about her and his boss, who had fired him, drawing attention of the FBI. Officers went through on efforts to arrest him with five counts of violating code 18 U.S.C. Section 875 by using interstate communications to threaten harms to an individual. He was then convicted on four of the counts and sentenced to 44 months in prison but, in his appeal, argued that the District Court used the incorrect standards for making the determination that his Facebook posts were “true threats.” (1)

In the end, the ruling on June 1 determined that the Court agreed that it wasn’t enough to convict Elonis based solely on the idea that a reasonable person would regard his communications as a threat and that negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction. Elonis’ lawyer, John P. Elwood, said that his client would post disclaimers on most of his posts that he was exercising his freedom of speech. He was quoted as saying, “The First Amendment’s basic command is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds it offensive or disagreeable.” (2)

In the end you have to ask yourself, how far would you go to exercise your rights and freedoms? Is a Facebook or any social media post of threatening nature appropriate in any case? The Supreme Court has made their decision, but various cases have had different outcomes based on what people have said and what was believed to be too “over the top.”

The Obama Twitter Threats

According to defamation actions; where a plaintiff in an action is a private citizen not within public eye, the law extends a lesser degree of constitutional protection to the statements at issue. (3) In one case, a 26-year-old man was sentenced to a year in prison for the Twitter threats he made online against somebody we have all come to know in public eye – President Barack Obama. The Alabama man, Jarvis M. Britton, sent a tweet in 2013 that said, “Let’s kill the president. F.E.A.R.” – which stood for “F— Everyone And Run.”

Threats are not typically protected under the First Amendment, as this case proved. Federal Law, in mostly all cases, makes it a felony offense to knowingly convey communication that contains information and threats to take the life of, kidnap, or inflict bodily harm upon the President of the United States. This can come with fines and up to five years of prison as a general punishment. Because he chose to put the threats out there on public social media, it was enough to make it illegal and Britton pleaded guilty that same year. He confessed to the fact that he believed what he did was wrong, apologized to the courts, and was ordered to serve three years of probation on top of the jail sentence he had already received. (4)

Lady Arrested For Threatening to Kill Cops

In another case that started April 2015, a woman was arrested after she wrote “death to all white cops nationwide” on her Facebook page. Ebony Dickens was arrested for terror-related charges a day after her paragraph-long rant against specifically white police officers. The 33-year-old admitted that she was plotting an attack and was even stated as saying she would kill at least fifteen the next day.

When it comes to threats like these, they are threats to be taken seriously. Even if the threat ends up falling short, which is the case for so many, when a threat is initiated that calls for the death of people publicly, police are called to look into the matter at hand. Atlanta Police caught wind of this specific post and tipped off police in her area, when they tracked it to her. Dickens ended up deleting her Facebook account hours before her arrest and was charged with disseminating information related to terrorist acts. As mentioned, every case will be different with different outcomes, but in the end, threats will be utilized and taken seriously. (5)

People believe that First Amendment Protection will allow them to say any nasty thing they want to on the Internet, but this is not always the case. In many cases, it will lead to even nastier court hearings and arrests. These First Amendment rights, as many forget, are not absolute and free speech is not entirely as free as expected. Fighting words, obscenity, child pornography, misleading commercial speech, cyber bullying, and true threats are not protected under these laws. A true threat constitutes one that “a reasonable person would interpret as a real and serious communication of an intent to inflict harm”, and Supreme Court goes from there to make their decision on whether or not the speaker actually intended for the speech to become a threat. (6) In the case of Elonis, things may have worked out in his honor. However, for many others, this isn’t the case and one thing remains true: Watch what you post!