Monday, August 25, 2014

Warning Against the Danger of Criminalizing Provocative Facebook Postings

Weighing in on a case that will significantly impact expression on Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, The Rutherford Institute has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who was charged with making unlawful threats (it was never proven that he intended to threaten anyone) and sentenced to 44 months in jail after he
posted allusions to popular song lyrics and comedy routines on his Facebook page.

The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Anthony D. Elonis v. United States of Americaargues that the First Amendment protects even inflammatory statements that may give offense or cause concern to others unless the statements were a credible threat to engage in violence against another and made by the defendant with the intent to cause fear in the alleged victim. The case arises out of Facebook postings made by Anthony Elonis expressing his anger about events in his life, and which were based upon rap lyrics of artists such as Eminem and a comedy sketch of the group The Whitest Kids U’ Know.

“Whether it’s a Marine arrested for criticizing the government on Facebook or an ex-husband jailed for expressing his frustrations through rap lyrics on Facebook, the end result is the same—the criminalization of free speech,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “While social media and the Internet have become critical forums for individuals to freely share information and express their ideas, they have unfortunately also become tools for the government to monitor, control and punish the populace for behavior and speech that may be controversial but are far from criminal.”

Anthony Elonis was an active poster on Facebook who often used references to popular culture to express his views, feelings and frustration about events in his life. In May 2010, after Elonis’ wife left him and took his two children, he began listening to rap music and alluding to the sometimes violent lyrics of rap songs on his Facebook page. Elonis would couple these postings with statements acknowledging that the lyrics were fictitious and that he was simply exercising his First Amendment right of expression. After his estranged wife obtained a protection order against him, Elonis posted a reference to a comedy sketch of The Whitest Kids U’ Know about threatening language that Elonis changed to include a reference about harming his wife. In another post, Elonis used the lyrics of Eminem in which the rap artist included fantasized thoughts about shooting up a school. After federal agents were alerted to some of his postings, an investigator was sent to speak with Elonis. In response, Elonis posted rap lyrics he wrote containing fantasized language about having a bomb strapped to his body and doing violence to the agent.

In response to these postings, the federal government charged Elonis under a statute making it a crime to transmit in interstate commerce any communication containing a threat to injure another. Elonis was convicted on four counts of violating this statute but appealed his conviction, arguing that the government should have been required to prove that he intended to threaten the alleged victims, not simply that the victims could reasonably have believed the words were “true threats.” In weighing in on the case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Rutherford Institute attorneys argue that “in order to protect the First Amendment rights of speakers, courts must ensure that they are criminalizing more than just the unrealized and unrealizable fears of particularly sensitive listeners.”

In a related case, The Rutherford Institute is also representing Marine veteran Brandon Raub, who was arrested, detained in a psychiatric ward, and forced to undergo psychological evaluations based solely on the controversial nature of lines from song lyrics, political messages and virtual card games which he posted to his private Facebook page.

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