With no surprise, U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of 1st Amendment

The Supreme Court made it a little harder Monday to prosecute people for making threatening statements, this time on Facebook.

The Court’s decision reversed the conviction of a Pennsylvania man whose Facebook postings seemed threatening to his estranged wife. The court said prosecutors must prove beyond any doubt that poster was aware that he was doing something wrong.

“Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote. “Wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal.”

The court’s ruling is a victory not only for Anthony Douglas Elonis, but for all of us who use the internet to get our message out.

Steven R. Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, praised the decision as one that “properly recognizes that the law has for centuries required the government to prove criminal intent before putting someone in jail.”

“That principle is especially important when a prosecution is based on a defendant’s words,” Shapiro said in a statement. “The Internet does not change this long-standing rule.”

Elonis was charged with making aggressive Facebook postings, which police said were threats.  Elonis wrote, “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you,” Elonis posted at one point. “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”

When his wife secured a protection Protection Order from a state judge, Elonis went on Facebook to declare, “Fold up your PFA and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”

Elonis characterized his postings as “fictitious lyrics” and likened himself to Eminem and other rappers for whom “art is about pushing limits.” Elonis argued that the jury should have been required to find that he intended his posts to be threats.

The trial judge disagreed, and Elonis was convicted on four counts of making threatening communications and sentenced to 44 months in prison. He was freed last year.
Justice Roberts noted that Elonis’ conviction was “premised solely on how his posts would be understood by a reasonable person.” Roberts said that while the ” ‘reasonable person’ standard was a familiar feature of civil liability in tort law,” it “is inconsistent with the conventional requirement for criminal conduct, awareness of some wrongdoing.”
Official portrait of U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

The Honorable U.S.  Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts.

Roberts concluded, Congress, in writing the law about communicating threats,”did not identify what mental state” must be proved for conviction.

Bravo to the U.S. Supreme Court for standing firm on First Amendment issues, again.

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