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US Supreme Court Weighs in on Threats Over Social Media

The new reality of social interaction includes the popular, and seemingly always proliferating, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.  Considering the increasing ubiquity of social media, it was only a matter of time before the United States Supreme Court would weigh in on its use, which it had opportunity to do in the matter of Anthony Douglas Elonis v. United States, 135 S.Ct. 2001 (2015).

 

In the Elonis matter, the petitioner Anthony Douglas Elonis’s wife left him in May 2010, taking their children with her.  Following their separation, Mr. Elonis began listening to “violent music” and posting so-called “rap lyrics” to his Facebook page.  Eventually he changed his name on his Facebook profile to “Tone Dougie,” a rap-style nom de plume, in order to create an “on-line persona.”  His rap lyrics contained rather violent and graphic language but did contain a disclaimer that his lyrics were fictions with no intentional resemblance to real persons.  He also said on Facebook that he writes these lyrics, and other such posts, as a form of therapy for himself to deal with the pain of the breakup of his family.

 

Unfortunately for Mr. Elonis, people who viewed his Facebook posts did not seem to appreciate his therapeutic efforts.  Evidently, after the Halloween following his separation, Mr. Elonis posted a photograph of himself from a Halloween event at his place of employ holding a toy knife to his co-worker’s throat, accompanied by a caption reading “I wish.”  Mr. Elonis was fired by his employer for this post due to its violent and threatening nature regarding his co-worker.

 

Mr. Elonis responded to his termination from employment at an amusement park with the following Facebook post: “Moles! Didn’t I tell y’all I had several? Y’all sayin’ I had access to keys for all the f***in’ gates. That I have sinister plans for all my friends and must have taken home a couple. Y’all think it’s too dark and foggy to secure your facility from a man as mad as me? You see, even without a paycheck, I’m still the main attraction. Whoever thought the Halloween Haunt could be so f***in’ scary?””  This post formed the basis for the first count of his criminal indictment for threatening park patrons and employees.

 

In addition to the above, Mr. Elonis also posted crude, demeaning, and violent material regarding his ex-wife, including a long post adapting a comedian’s sketch about how to avoid overtly saying one wishes to kill the president to a post of similar content about killing one’s wife.  In the post he included accurate details about his ex-wife’s home and rhetorically asked whether the reader is willing to “go to jail for [one’s] Constitutional rights.”

 

Upon seeing the above-mentioned post, his ex-wife began to fear for her life and secured a protection order against Mr. Elonis.  In response Mr. Elonis posted on Facebook what appeared to be lyrics or poetry contemplating whether a protection order could stop a bullet and suggested blowing up a police department with a bomb.  This post formed the basis of two more counts of his criminal indictment.  The fourth count of Mr. Elonis’s criminal indictment flowed from a subsequent Facebook post regarding potentially mass killing a local kindergarten class.  After the FBI investigated the aforesaid post, Mr. Elonis followed it up with what formed the basis of the fifth count of his criminal indictment, namely a post threatening the life of FBI agents (though none by name).

 

Mr. Elonis was eventually indicted for making threats to injure patrons and employees of the park, his estranged wife, police officers, a kindergarten class, and an FBI agent.  All of these threats were in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c) which states “[w]hoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

 

Mr. Elonis filed a motion to dismiss the indictment on the basis that none of the charges against him contained any allegation that he intended to threaten anyone.  The District Court (his matter originated in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania) denied the motion.  At the trial for the charges Mr. Elonis testified that his posts were emulating rap lyrics (especially those of Eminem who also penned lyrics about killing his wife) and, therefore, were made without any intent to threaten anyone.  The prosecution presented witnesses who testified that they felt threatened and in fear of injury.  At the conclusion of the trial, Mr. Elonis’ requested that the jury be instructed that in order for him to be convicted the prosecution must prove he had an intention to threaten.  His request was denied.  Ultimately, Mr. Elonis was sentenced to three years and eight months’ incarceration and three years’ suspended release.  Mr. Elonis then appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals of the Third Circuit which upheld the conviction and ruled that the intent suggested by Mr. Elonis was not required by the law.  Mr. Elonis then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, and it is that Court’s decision that is the subject of this article.

 

Mr. Elonis argued to the Supreme Court that the term “threat” necessarily implies an intention to inflict harm.  Unpersuaded, the Court pointed out that the definition of “threat” proffered by Mr. Elonis speaks to the message conveyed by the threatening statement and not the mental state of the speaker.  The government noted that the other crimes in the statutes neighboring 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c) all explicitly include a mental state in their terms which suggests that the legislature intentionally left such a provision out of 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c) and, therefore, no mental state is required for conviction under this section.  The Court was unpersuaded by this argument as well indicating that all that could be concluded is that Congress laid out a broad class of crimes but simply did not include what mental state, if any, is required for conviction.  Based on the above, the Court observed that neither party sufficiently identified any indication of any particular mental state required by 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c).  Despite this, the Court recognized that any crime must carry with it some conscious action (e.g.: mens rea) and that the mere omission of a mental state from 18 U.S.C. Section 875(c) does not mean none exists.

 

After a review of the applicable case law, the Court concluded that when a criminal statute is silent on mental state, the only mens rea that can be read into it is only that which is enough to separate wrongful conduct from innocent conduct as applied to each element of the crime.  Furthermore, the Court ruled that the mental state requirement, relative to Mr. Elonis’ case, must apply to whether the communication itself contains an actual threat.  By contrast, Mr. Elonis’ conviction was based solely upon how his posts would be perceived by a reasonable person.  As a result, the Court rejected the government’s argument for a mental state closer to negligence (i.e.: “reasonable person”) as well as Mr. Elonis’ argument from ignorance asserting that he could not be convicted unless it was shown he knew the posts could be characterized as threatening.

 

Ultimately the Court reversed Mr. Elonis’ conviction.  The Court held that the jury instructions mentioned above were insufficient.  There must be something more than the prosecution merely proving that a reasonable person could regard Mr. Elonis’ posts as threats.  Instead, there must be an instruction indicating that a mental state for Mr. Elonis is necessary for conviction.  The Court was confident that the mental state requirement would be satisfied if it could be shown that Mr. Elonis knew that his posts could be understood to be a threat and/or were posted to be threatening.  Although the Court rejected a negligence standard, as noted above, the Court declined to rule whether a recklessness standard would be sufficient to convict for the crime at issue herein as that issue was not raised by the parties until oral argument and briefly at that.  The Court was reluctant to be the first tribunal to rule on the issue and, instead, opted to allow the lower courts to initially look at the issue.  Consequently, the Court also remanded Mr. Elonis’ case for further proceedings per the Court’s ruling.

Originally published on August 25, 2015 in The Legal Intelligencer and can be seen here.

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