Sunday, November 30, 2014

Important U.S. Supreme Court case on violent threats over the internet

The U.S. Supreme Court will shortly hear a very important case about threats over the internet.  After making numerous violent threats over the internet directed at his estranged wife.
“A jury convicted Elonis, and he spent more than three years in prison. On December 1, the Supreme Court will hear Elonis’s First Amendment challenge to his conviction — the first time the justices have considered limits for speech on social media. For decades, the court has essentially said that ‘'true threats'’ are an exception to the rule against criminalizing speech. These threats do not have to be carried out — or even be intended to be carried out — to be considered harmful. Bans against threats may be enacted, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in 2003, to protect people ‘'from the fear of violence'’ and ‘'from the disruption that fear engenders.'’ Current legal thinking is that threats do damage on their own.
Elonis, however, claims that he didn’t make a true threat, because he didn’t mean it. ‘'I would never hurt my wife,'’ he told the jury. ‘'I never intended to threaten anyone. This is for me. This is therapeutic.'’ Talking about the loss of his wife, he continued, ‘'helps me to deal with the pain.'’ He had copied the Whitest Kids U’ Know, along with the rapper Eminem, to try his hand at art and parody. Tara said she knew her husband had borrowed some of his words, but they still scared her. ‘'I felt like I was being stalked,” she said in court. ‘'I felt extremely afraid for mine and my children’s and my family’s lives.'’
The central question for the Supreme Court will be whose point of view — the speaker’s, or the listener’s — matters. The jury was instructed to convict Anthony Elonis if it was reasonable for him to see that Tara would interpret his posts as a serious expression of intent to harm her. The court could uphold the standard, or it could require that jurors be asked to convict only if they believe the speaker truly intended to threaten harm. In essence, the court will have to decide what matters more: one person’s freedom to express violent rage, or another person’s freedom to live without the burden of fear?
The legal issue is connected to a larger question: how to deal with the frequent claim that online speech is a special form of playacting, in which a threat is as unreal as an attack on an avatar in World of Warcraft. Gilberto Valle — known as the Cannibal Cop for fetish chat-room messages in which he talked of capturing, cooking and eating specific women — persuaded a judge to overturn his conviction by saying he was just expressing a dark fantasy. In the ongoing ‘'GamerGate'’ campaign, a faction of video-game enthusiasts tweeted death threats to women who had criticized misogyny in video-game culture. When a few of the women felt scared and left their homes, some gamers scoffed, dismissing the threats as ephemeral.”
For a change, I’m siding with the government on this one.  The recipient's right to be free of threats that look credible to him or her, should trump the poster’s right to “express violent rage” in a fashion that could cause the recipient to live in fear.  The internet is already out of control.  The Court needs to help impose some controls on speech that is not constitutionally protected.


  1. Agreed. A verbal and/or written threat of violence should never be taken lightly. One must assume sane individuals mean what they say. If someone claims their issued threat lacked intention, they lied. Neither the threat of violence nor lie of same should be tolerated. IMO. freedom of speech is about constructive ends, not destructive tendencies.

  2. 44: Thanks, largely agreed. One of the oldest human excuses is "I didn't really mean it." However, under the First Amendment we have to tolerate a lot that we don't like and find questionable. We do not have to tolerate threats of violence that are not obviously rhetorical.