Ruling Fails To Hold Offender Accountable For Facebook Threats

elonsisAdvocates for victims of domestic violence are disappointed the Supreme Court ruled to throw out the conviction of Anthony Elonis, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, who made chilling and vivid threats on Facebook to harm his estranged wife and others.

The Supreme Court on June 1 said it was not enough that an ordinary person would find Elonis’ rap-style social media posts threatening. “The narrow opinion said it was not necessary to address whether the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech protected Elonis’ Facebook statements, the Washington Post wrote. “The opinion also declined to take a position on whether it would be enough for a conviction to show that a defendant had been reckless in making inflammatory statements.”

The justices heard the case of Elonis vs. United States on December 1, 2014. Elonis is challenging a 44-month prison sentence he served for Facebook that appeared to threaten his wife with violence. Even after a restraining order, Elonis continued to post. He was eventually convicted and sentenced to 44 months in prison.

He claimed the posts were meant as jokes and are protected under the First Amendment. Further, he contends that under the federal threat statute, the jury must find that he intended his Facebook posts to be threatening. (The ruling did not address the First Amendment question.)

His wife clearly considered his posts threatening. “I felt like I was being stalked,” she testified. “I felt extremely afraid for mine and my children’s and my family’s lives.”

The National Network to End Domestic Violence criticized the ruling, saying, “We believe a reasonable person standard is appropriate for conviction of threatening under the statute at issue.”

The organization noted that Justice Samuel Alito wrote that “[t]hreats of violence and intimidation are among the most favored weapons of domestic abusers, and the rise of social media has only made those tactics more commonplace.”

But advocates for victims of domestic violence worry the ruling will make it difficult for victims to find protection from online threats.

“The Internet is the crime scene of the 21st century,” Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, told the Washington Post. “The laws governing social media require swift interpretation to keep pace with the ever-advancing criminal activity in this space.”

Supreme Court to Consider Facebook Threats

anthony elonsis

Anthony Elonsis

The Internet makes so many tasks easier: We can order dinner, schedule a taxi ride, quickly confirm who won the 1953 World Series (that would be the Yankees.) But the Internet can be a tool for evil deeds as well, with social media emerging as a new way for offenders to stalk and threaten their victims. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule this summer in an important case about threats on Facebook.

In a chilling story, NPR reported the threats  Anthony Elonis, of Allentown, Pennsylvania, made on his Facebook page about his estranged wife. He wrote:

There’s one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya,
And I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess,
Soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.
Hurry up and die bitch.

Another post says:
Revenge is a dish that is best served cold with a delicious side of psychological torture.

Elonis’s wife obtained a restraining order, which barred her estranged husband from “threatening, harassing or contacting her, even indirectly,” NPR reported. But he kept posting. A threat that alluded to school shootings caught the attention of an FBI agent, and Elonis was eventually convicted and sentenced to 44 months in prison.

Elonis claims the posts were meant as jokes and are protected under the First Amendment. Further, he contends that under the federal threat statute, the jury must find that he intended his Facebook posts to be threatening.

Federal prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald told NPR that since Elonis made the posts after his estranged wife obtained a restraining order, he could have foreseen the reaction.

Fitzgerald considers social media a potential breeding ground for violent threats. “There’s an epidemic of threats out there, and with the Internet it’s going to get worse,” he said.

The National Network to End Domestic Violence urges the Supreme Court to uphold Elonis’s conviction and filed a brief in the case. Victims “have experienced real-life terror caused by increasingly graphic and public posts to Facebook and other social media sites — terror that is exacerbated precisely because abusers now harness the power of technology, ‘enabling them to reach their victims’ everyday lives at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen,’” the brief says.