The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned the conviction of Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man previously convicted for posting a series of Facebook posts appearing to threaten his now-ex wife and others.
The high court ruled in Elonis v. United States that it was not enough to convict Elonis without consideration of his mental state, in particular whether he truly intended to carry out the apparent threats. More specifically, the court held that the negligence standard that the Third Circuit used to convict Elonis under a federal statute, 18 U.S.C. §875(c), was too low.
Elonis had been charged with threatening his estranged wife, a kindergarten class and law enforcement officers. The self-proclaimed “aspiring rap artist,” however, claimed the posts – unquestionably violent in nature – were merely “rap lyrics,” similar to Eminem’s.
At issue had been whether these posts could be construed as “true threats” against Elonis’ wife, or if the appropriate test was the “reasonable person” standard. Arguments were heard on December 1, 2014.
At first glance, this ruling by the high court looks like bad news for cyberharassment victims, with potential drastic ramifications for people who are on the receiving of potential online threats and other attacks. After all, the Supreme Court overturned decisions in most of the appeals courts in the country that a cyberharasser can go to jail for communicating something that “a reasonable person would regard as a threat.”
But the decision is not as bad as it looks on the surface. And Elonis – who actually returned to jail last week for violating the terms of his prison release – is far from off the hook. The case was sent back to the lower court, leaving room for him to be convicted again if the prosecutor can show reckless or that Elonis actually intended the “lyrics” to be threats.