The case of a Pennsylvania man who made violent threats against his wife, an FBI agent and others on Facebook went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to determine whether or not his online comments could be legally protected. In a surprisingly lopsided decision, the court ruled 7-2 this week to overturn the conviction.
The convicted man, Anthony Elonis, posted lyrics from rapper Eminem that amounted to violent threats. However, he claimed that his comments were “a form of therapy” to recover from the end of his marriage and the loss of his job, and that he should be protected by free speech. The government prosecution contended that any threat that provoked “sufficient fear and anxiety” could be prosecuted. However, the Supreme Court did not even use the First Amendment in its overturning of the conviction. Instead, Chief Justice John Roberts said that the so-called reasonable person standard was not enough—in other words, more was needed to convict the man than just how he made a “reasonable person” feel with his words.
This case could prove to be a landmark one for online free speech, and the decision reached by the court could make it hard to interpret the law moving forward. Justice Samuel Alito, one of the two dissenting justices in the case, said as much in his written opinion.
“The Court’s disposition of this case is certain to cause confusion and serious problems. Attorneys and judges need to know which mental state is required for conviction… This case squarely presents that issue, but the Court provides only a partial answer,” Alito wrote. “This will have regrettable consequences.”