Everyone seems to use social media today. Videos of kittens and puppies and comments about people or events are common. However, some use of social media involves threats by a user against others. The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered a case regarding how far such threats can go without violating the law.
Anthony Elonis was a Facebook user. When his wife left him, Elonis began posting violent, self-composed “rap” lyrics. Elonis’s posts included references to co-workers, his wife, law enforcement, an unidentified kindergarten class and an FBI agent who visited his home. Based on these Facebook posts, the Government charged Elonis with violating a federal statute, referred to as 875(c), that criminalizes communication that contains a threat to harm another person.
Elonis’s defense attorney moved to dismiss the charges because Elonis had not actually intended to threaten anyone. The court denied the motion, holding that the Government was not required to prove that Elonis actually intended to make a threat; it must only prove that Elonis intended to make the communication. At trial, the Government called several witnesses who testified they viewed the posts as serious threats.
Elonis argued for a jury instruction requiring the Government to prove Elonis “intended to communicate a threat.” Instead, the judge instructed the jury that a true threat requires only that the defendant make a statement that a reasonable person would interpret as a serious expression of intent to harm or kill an individual.
Elonis was convicted on four counts. He appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court’s verdict. Elonis then appealed to the Supreme Court.
No one disputed Elonis had posted the Facebook entries. The issue was whether Elonis’s posts contained any threats.
The language of 875(c) contains no provision regarding intent or state of mind. Elonis argued that every definition of threat requires an intent to harm. The Government argued that the use of “intent” language in sections surrounding 875(c) demonstrated that Congress did not intend to impose an intent standard in 875(c).
The Court rejected both arguments, concluding that 875(c) did not address the issue of “intent” or “mental state” at all. The Court looked elsewhere for an answer and found one in decisions in previous cases: Only conscious wrongdoing can be prosecuted as a crime. When a statute includes no provision regarding the required mental state, the Court said it implies only the state of mind which is required to distinguish wrongful conduct from conduct that would otherwise be innocent. For example, if an individual robs a bank, even under a good-faith belief the money was his, the “forceful taking” (stealing) does not constitute “otherwise innocent conduct.” The Court said the Government’s position in this case would punish a defendant who takes money without force, believing it to be his.
The court characterized the Government’s position as a standard of negligence, which asks what a reasonable person would do in the situation. The Court said a negligence standard had been rejected in criminal statutes, stating “what [Elonis] thinks does matter.” On that basis, the Court overturned Elonis’s conviction.
In a separate opinion, Justices Alito and Thomas took issue with the Court holding that a negligence standard was insufficient while not determining what standard would be sufficient. Judge Alito argued for a recklessness standard (acting in conscious disregard of the risk). Justice Thomas chastised the majority for rejecting the opinion of nine out of eleven Circuit Courts of Appeals and leaving nothing in its place. Justice Thomas did commend the majority for not imposing an intent-to-threaten requirement but believed the Court should have gone further and adopted the negligence or general intent standard put forward by the Government.
Elonis v. U.S. raises more questions than it answers. Clearly, something more than making a threatening statement with knowledge of what it says is required to violate federal law. But how much more? Was Justice Alito correct that making the statement with no consideration of its effect on the recipient is enough? Or was Elonis right that an individual must affirmatively intend the communication as a threat for it to be illegal? Setting aside moral or ethical concerns, until this question is answered, social media users should be cautious of making statements threatening other individuals, serious or not.