Supreme Court Rules in Facebook “Threatening Messages” Case

Yesterday, the Supreme Court kicked-off rulings season by issuing a number of key opinions, one of which dealt with a man who had been convicted of violating a federal threat law after posting what the government deemed to be threatening messages on Facebook.
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As our West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers know, technology has created many dilemmas in today’s society; one of the most complex has been determining the extent to which free speech applies in the realm of social media.

Thankfully, with their ruling, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the strength of our First Amendment by siding with Anthony Elonis in his case against the government. The Court held that “negligence alone is not sufficient to support a conviction.”

To be sure, this case is not a simple one; after all, there’s rarely a simple case that makes its way to the Supreme Court. That said, the introduction to this blog shouldn’t be taken to mean that this was a straightforward issue of free speech.

Everything started when Anthony Elonis began to post threatening messages on his Facebook account after his wife left him. He has always held that, as an artist, he turns to rap lyrics as a form of therapy to help cope with depression. Still, his posts on Facebook didn’t exactly jump off the page as forms of therapy. Instead of posting about Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, Elonis wrote things such as, “there’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you” and “enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”

Without a doubt, as our West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers at Leifert & Leifert know, these messages are upsetting and disturbing. But, as our West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers know, that does not make them illegal.

After all, Eminem had made millions with his sometimes violent lyrics, many of which have put his ex-wife in the cross hairs. In his trial, Elonis and his attorneys argued that (i) just like Eminem, Elonis was using purely fictitious lyrics as a way to cope with his sadness and (ii) he never intended to do any actual harm to his ex-wife or anyone else.

Nevertheless, Elonis was charged and convicted under 18 U.S.C 875(c), a federal law that makes it a federal crime to transmit in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat … to injure the person of another.” Basically, it’s a federal crime to threaten someone over the internet (as the internet satisfies engagement in “interstate commerce”). In his trial, Elonis and his lawyers requested that the judge tell the jury that the government had to prove that Elonis intended to communicate a “true threat.” Thus, if the government’s couldn’t prove that, the jury would have to find Elonis not guilty. Instead, the judge told the jury, based on the government’s argument, that they could find Elonis guilty if a reasonable person would foresee that his messages would be interpreted as threats; as the Supreme Court held, the “reasonable person” in a similar position standard is a negligence standard.

The jury instruction issued by the judge in Elonis’ trial highlights how important jury instructions are. Luckily for Elonis, as our West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers know, the Supreme Court ruled that the judge’s jury instructions were wrong. In writing on behalf of the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that “negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction under 875(c),” arguing that the negligence standard was improperly given to the jury as a way to convict Elonis. The Supreme Court thus overturned Elonis’ conviction.

The chief take-away from the ruling is that how people might interpret what you say on the internet matters far less than your intention in saying those things, at least in terms of deciding whether or not you are in violation of a federal threat crime. If you have any questions about this truly important Supreme Court ruling, or if you have been arrested for or charged with a crime in Palm Beach, Broward and/or Miami-Dade County, please contact our West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale criminal defense lawyers at the Law Offices of Leifert & Leifert by calling 1-888-5-DEFEND (1-888-533-3363). We look forward to assisting you.

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