Does this message from an estranged husband to his wife after she filed a restraining order against him sound like a threat to you?
“Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
Does it matter that it was posted on his Facebook page? The poster is claiming that rants posted on social media should not be taken seriously and should have free speech protection. The poster argues that his violent fantasies about killing his wife are no different from what his hero, Eminem, raps about and so deserve protection as artistic expressions.
The Supreme Court has taken up the case. Oral arguments begin December 1. What do you think about this?
About a week after Tara Elonis persuaded a judge to issue a protective order against her estranged husband, Anthony, her soon-to-be ex had this to say:
“Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket
Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
Anthony Elonis didn’t deliver the message in person, by phone or in a note. Instead, he posted it on his Facebook page, for all to see, in a prose style reminiscent of the violent, misogynistic lyrics of rap artists he admired.
In its first examination of the limits of free speech on social media, the Supreme Court will consider next week whether, as a jury concluded, Elonis’s postings constituted a “true threat” to his wife and others.
The issue is whether Elonis should be prosecuted for what he says was simply blowing off steam — “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events,” as his brief to the court says — because what matters is not his intent but whether any reasonable person targeted in the rants would regard them as menacing warnings.
Parties on both sides of the groundbreaking case are asking the court to consider the unique qualities of social media. In this rapidly evolving realm of communication, only the occasional emoticon may signal whether a writer is engaging in satire or black humor, exercising poetic license, or delivering the kind of grim warnings that have presaged school shootings and other acts of mass violence.
Elonis, who has served prison time for his Facebook posts, and some of his supporters say the court must look beyond incendiary content to discern the writer’s intent.
“Internet users may give vent to emotions on which they have no intention of acting, memorializing expressions of momentary anger or exasperation that once were communicated face-to-face among friends and dissipated harmlessly,” said a brief filed on Elonis’s behalf by the Student Press Law Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the writers organization PEN.
Domestic violence experts, on the other hand, say social media has become a powerful tool for dispensing threats.
Victims of domestic abuse, according to a brief filed by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, “have experienced real-life terror caused by increasingly graphic and public posts to Facebook and other social media sites — terror that is exacerbated precisely because abusers now harness the power of technology, ‘enabling them to reach their victims’ everyday lives at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.’”