Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will take on the case of a man, Anthony Elonis, who made threats against his wife on Facebook. A lower court ruled that Elonis’ comments represented a “true threat” to his wife, though Elonis and his defense team claim that he was simply “blowing off steam.”
In 2010, Elonis’ Facebook page began to fill with disturbing posts after his wife left him and took the couple’s two children with her. He posted a series of graphic threats, including dressing up his son as “Matricide” for Halloween and putting his wife’s head on a stick, shooting up an elementary school, and even threatening the life of a female FBI agent who visited him about his comments. However, Elonis’ defense says that he had no intention of ever carrying out his threats.
“Internet users may give vent to emotions on which they have no intention of acting, memorializing expressions of momentary anger or exasperation that once were communicated face-to-face among friends and dissipated harmlessly,” Elonis’ brief read.
However, as domestic violence advocates and the prosecution in the case have pointed out, a threat is still a threat regardless of the intention behind it. If the target of someone’s words feels unsafe or threatened by them, then those words must be considered threats. It’s a difficult case legally sort out, and it’s one that could have far-reaching implications for online free-speech rights. Proving intent is difficult, but on the Internet, where there is no such thing as tone, figuring out just what someone means is nearly impossible.