SCOTUS: Man Can Post Threatening Lyrics on Facebook if He Doesn’t Display Intent


scotusIn an 8-1 ruling, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who posted violent rap lyrics on his Facebook page, saying that prosecutors hadn’t proved his intent to carry out the threats in the lyrics against other people.

The so-called “Facebook rapper” case overturned the conviction of Anthony Elonis, who had been arrested and convicted for making threats against his ex-wife, police, and a school in the form of violent, Eminem-style rap lyrics posted on his Facebook wall. The comments subsequently got him fired from his job at an amusement park, and his ex-wife sought an order of protection against him. His lawyers argued that much like Eminem, who frequently rapped about the nasty things he would do to his ex-wife Kim but never intended to actually kill her, Elonis was expressing his First Amendment rights to free speech and didn’t actually want to harm anyone (at one point, he quoted a sketch from The Whitest Kids U Know, nearly verbatim.)

In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts sided with Elonis, but only sort of: the government did not prove that Elonis actually issued a threat, or knew that his words would be taken as a threat. “The jury was instructed that the Government need prove only that a reasonable person would regard Elonis’s communications as threats, and that was error,” Roberts said. “Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.”

The decision was narrowly tailored to the circumstances of the case and declined to address any First Amendment issues (“Our holding makes clear that negligence is not sufficient to support a conviction,” Roberts explained), remanding it to the lower courts to determine whether Elonis did intend to harm the people mentioned in his Facebook posts.

Justice Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenter, arguing that the Court’s ruling did not adequately define what kind of intent Elonis needed to display in order to be found guilty. Justice Samuel Alito also dissented with part of the majority’s opinion, under the same principles as Thomas.

[h/t NPR]
[Image via Shutterstock]

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