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.