When free speech becomes threatening speech

Emma Garcia, Online Editor


“There’s one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya.”

This quotation is from a Facebook post by Anthony Elonis. He is currently the defendant in the Elonis vs. United States Supreme Court case, which is focusing on the line between First Amendment rights and threatening language.

The most crucial part of this case is context. Context can change a threat to a joke. It can turn fact into hyperbole.

The court will decide if Anthony Elonis is simply exercising his freedom of speech right guaranteed by the First Amendment to post things on Facebook even if these postings are viewed as threatening to those that they are aimed at — in Elonis’ case, an ex-wife. This case will most definitely decide the results of similar cases that are sure to follow.

If Elonis’ posts were said to someone’s face or even through a phone call these words could seem threatening; however, in the context in which they were posted, Facebook, they should be protected under the First Amendment due to the nature and purpose of social media itself, which is to let users publicize their feelings and inner thoughts without penalty.

When Elonis posted his supposed “threats,” he was having a hard year. His wife had left him, taking their children with her, and he was fired after he posted what his supervisor interpreted as threatening words.

If someone experiences those types of life-altering events, they probably aren’t going to post the most level-headed things. To say that someone can’t vent their feelings onto social media, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, or the like, is a direct violation of the First Amendment.

One of Elonis’ posts about his wife was in the form of a rap; at the time, Elonis was an aspiring rap artist and probably sought to imitate the rapper Eminem, who also said derogatory words about his wife in his lyrics and sold millions of albums.

Some journalists have pointed out the flaws in Elonis’ opposition’s case. In an article titled “The Nuances of Threats on Facebook” that was posted on December 3, writer Vauhini Vara focused on the importance of context.

“Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the possible ramifications of the Court’s decision,” Vara said. “What about a newspaper columnist who writes with satirical intent that he wishes someone would kill the President, but is taken seriously? Could those people be prosecuted for making threats under the framework that Elonis’ jury applied?”

People do not need to be prosecuted every time they post something that is perceived as “threatening.”

In an article by Nina Totenbberg of NPR titled “Is a Threat Posted on Facebook Really a Threat?” Totenberg states that if the Supreme Court allows Elonis’ conviction to stand, this could be a blow to free speech activists everywhere.

“But most of the friend-of-the-court briefs filed in the Elonis case take the opposite side,” Totenberg said. “They argue that if the court allows this conviction to stand, it would have enormous implications for free speech rights and artistic expression. Briefs full of references to the F-word or female genitalia attempt to provide a crash course on rap storytelling for justices whose tastes, as one wag observed, run more to Wagner and Puccini than Eminem and Wu-Tang Clan.”

Anthony Elonis’ posts were definitely not the thoughts of a well-balanced person but to take situations like these too seriously could end disastrously for both defendants and the courts they are prosecuted in.