Facebook and the First Amendment
Looks like I'm not the only one trying to figure out how and why things happen on Facebook. The U.S. Supreme Court is paying a lot of attention to the social network right now, but the stakes are a little higher than my "can I be calmer and happier without it" experiment. SCOTUS is in the middle of hearing a case that centers on whether and when a Facebook rant morphs from obnoxious but First Amendment-abiding screed to illegal threat.
In Elonis v. United States, the government argues that if a "reasonable person" would interpret a Facebook post as a threat, the poster should be subject to a criminal conviction. The lawyer for the man whose Facebook posts are at issue in this case, however, argues that the authorities should have to prove that the poster intended his or her words to be taken as a threat.
After oral argument on Monday, observers said the biggest stumbling block seemed to be finding a legal standard of proof. The problem arises from the court's reading of the relevant law. The law says threatening someone is illegal, but the court has determined that this only applies to "true threats." But it isn't completely sure what it means by that...
Once that, and the definition of a "reasonable person," get sorted out, it's clear that the implications could be widespread. In this case, a Pennsylvania man named Anthony Elonis posted notoriously violent Eminem lyrics on his Facebook page, directing them at his estranged wife. His lawyers say posting rap lyrics is clearly for entertainment purposes only, but his wife and law enforcement officials felt differently. Elonis didn't soak his wife's body in blood from "all the little cuts," as the lyrics suggested he might. Would he have done it if the police weren't called? What was his actual intent? Is it possible to know? And is it possible to know how many actual violent crimes have been committed after similar social media posts? Eliot Rodger left behind some frightening tweets and YouTube videos, and many people questioned whether stricter and more clear guidelines surrounding online threats might have prevented his rampage.
Though confusion abounds, Justice Scalia did suggest on Monday that he might be leaning more toward the government's side in this case.
"This sounds like a road map for threatening a spouse and getting away with it," he said during the hearing, according to CNN.
So, if you're still on that soul-sucking site, be careful what you post. (And, of course, it's generally good practice not to threaten people anywhere, online or off!)