Supreme Court to Decide What Makes an Online Threat Legitimate

Online harassers have been convicted and jailed for social media posts across the pond. While similar laws don't exist in the U.S., Elonis vs. United States could change that.

supreme court

Online harassment has become a major topic this year, largely because of Gamergate-related harassment on Twitter. Now a case of alleged harassment on Facebook may change how the court systems think about this kind of behavior. The Supreme Court will hear the case of Elonis vs. United States today, which at its heart is about online threats.

According to The Verge, it all began when Anthony Elonis and his wife separated in 2010. Shortly thereafter, he began a campaign of harassment against her on Facebook both directly and indirectly. He also began posting threats online allegedly aimed at co-workers, which cost him his job.

The FBI made some inquiries, and Elonis threatened the FBI agents online, ultimately leading to his arrest. Elonis was charged with “transmitting in interstate commerce communications containing threats to injure another person,” and was convicted by a jury.

As this case developed, Elonis defended his actions as jokes, or as rap songs created in the name of art or therapy. The conflict the Supreme Court needs to resolve: Could these posts be seen as legitimately threatening to a reasonable person?

We’ve seen instances in the U.K. of threatening language on social media being used to convict and jail users, but there are no similar laws in the U.S. In the past, the Supreme Court has attempted to leave speech as free as possible, while still protecting citizens. According to Todd Brewster in The Litigation Daily, context will likely be core to the decision.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides could cause big changes in social media policy or provoke greater police response when it comes to online threats. It’s unlikely the issue will remain cloudy for long, as social networks try to offset their legal liability when it comes to statements made on their services.

Publish date: December 1, 2014 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT