In 2010, Anthony Elonis threatened his wife on Facebook, musing on killing her again and again. He also posted lyrics from rapper Eminem, who frequently covers similar subject matter in his songs. Several lower courts ruled that what he wrote was illegal, but he pushed to have his case heard by the Supreme Court. Somewhat surprisingly, the court agreed to hear the case this week.
Elonis’ attorneys contend that he did not mean actual harm with his comments, though the court will have to rule if a “reasonable person” would have felt threatened. Courts have argued back and forth for years about if a person’s intent in making a threat is illegal, or if the victim’s interpretation should be considered. The issue only becomes more complicated online, and it’s a thorny issue the Supreme Court has avoided dealing with before. Last year, the court refused the petition of a man who was convicted in a lower court of threatening to kill the judge in his child’s custody case in a YouTube video.
“The issue is growing in importance as communication online by… social media has become commonplace,” Elonis’ petition to the Supreme Court said. “Modern media allow personal reflections intended for a small audience (or no audience) to be viewed widely by people who are unfamiliar with the context in which the statements were made and thus who may interpret the statements much differently than the speakers intended.”
Indeed, as cases like this one become more commonplace, the American justice system will have no choice but to face these ambiguous legal issues head-on.