• Social Media's Day in Court

    For the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case on free speech on social media. The events that led to this case being heard, however, are not pleasant.

    It began when Pennsylvania resident Anthony Elonis made a series of violently worded posts on Facebook, seemingly directed towards his estranged wife. The FBI arrested him for violating federal laws against making threats toward another person. A jury convicted him, finding that his posts could reasonably be interpreted as legitimate threats, and Elonis was sentenced to 44 months in prison.

    Elonis, however, argues that his posts weren’t meant to be taken seriously, and compared his words to violent lyrics and fantasies in songs (his posts were written in a sort-of rhyme scheme). They are protected speech, he contends, because he never specifically intended to act on them. The outcome of Elonis v. United States, which was argued before the Supreme Court today, will determine that.

    The implications of this case are big simply because it’s the first one pertaining to social media. It also hits a little closer to home for Indiana, as it bears some similarities to a case of a man arrested and convicted in Dearborn County of threatening public officials online. Despite support from free speech advocates across the political spectrum, the Indiana Supreme Court declined to overturn his conviction, then rejected an appeal of that decision.

    It’s harder to say what the outcome of Elonis will be. Any high school journalism teacher will tell you that there are, in fact, limits to free speech, and that making threats is not protected by the First Amendment. But in addition to Elonis’ defense, experts are saying social media is a whole new ballgame. The case and judicial interpretations could somehow be affected by the medium’s features, like emoji.

    This probably won’t be the last word on free speech on social media, and maybe not even the last word on threatening or bullying through social media. But, social media’s status as speech has always been murky. The outcome of this case will at least bring some clarity.

  • Social welfare, Scandinavian style

    The general belief among proponents of social programs is that the best way to pay for them is to tax those with more money. Yet there is a model for funding such programs that passes the cost onto the consumers, so that they pay for services in a more direct manner.

    This would be the Scandanavian model. In Norway, for example, the purchasing cost of regular goods is significantly higher. But there’s a reason for it: it’s heavily taxed to pay for the many social programs, including universal health care and free education, including college.

    That same article points out that such direct taxation is being used on a much smaller scale right here in the U.S. at the local level, funding social programs in towns and cities. It also suggests that such a taxation model could work for this country on a larger scale.

    I highly doubt it. While this model might work on a smaller scale, such as small towns funding something they’ll use locally, I don’t see people going for such funding at a statewide or national level. Simply put, the attitude of “Why should I pay for someone else?” is all too common in America, even if the thing they complain about actually benefits them as well as others. Same goes for the overall distrust of government programs, however illogical.

    But it’s not just a perception problem; high taxes can be a legitimate burden. I wrote recently of the high taxes driving residents from Illinois. Additionally, Illinois is raising taxes just to keep the state from going bankrupt. I imagine that a state instituting such a tax experiment will be met with a similar exodus, no matter how well-intentioned the reason for the tax may be.

    That’s not to emphatically state that the Scandinavian model is bad. On the contrary, I’m all for members of a community working together to help each other. I just have my doubts that that sense of community extends far enough for it to work on a much larger scale such as states.