Internet Threat Prosecution Draws U.S. High Court Review

The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether people can be convicted of making a threat without proof they meant it to be one, in a case over Facebook postings by a man angered by the departure of his wife and loss of his job.

The justices today said they will hear an appeal by Anthony Elonis, who is seeking to overturn his conviction and prison sentence for making online threats involving his wife, a kindergarten class and police officers.

Elonis says his free-speech rights were violated because prosecutors weren’t required to show that he meant for his words to be a threat. In urging the Supreme Court to take up the case, he said the issue is increasingly important in the age of social media because online communications are easily misinterpreted.

The Obama administration contends that a person can be prosecuted under a federal law so long as a reasonable person would view the statement as a threat.

Elonis made the posts on his public Facebook page in 2010, after his wife had left him, taking their two children with her, and he had lost his job at an Allentown, Pennsylvania, amusement park. The posts, which he said were therapeutic, frequently took the form of rap lyrics.

Among the posts was one that said there were “enough elementary schools in a ten-mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.” He added, “And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class.”

In another, he wrote about his wife, “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”

Elonis was sentenced to three years, 10 months in prison. A Philadelphia-based federal appeals court upheld the conviction.

In agreeing to take up the case, the Supreme Court said it would consider the proper interpretation of the federal threat statute, as well as Elonis’s constitutional argument.

The case, which the court will hear in the nine-month term that starts in October, is Elonis v. United States, 13-983.

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