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Elonis v. United States

Elonis v. United States
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Argued December 1, 2014
Decided June 1, 2015
Full case name Anthony Douglas Elonis v. United States
Docket nos. 13-983
Holding
A court's instruction that requires only negligence with respect to the communication of a threat is not sufficient to support a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). Third Circuit reversed and remanded.
Court membership
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</td></tr><tr><th colspan="2" style="text-align:center;background-color: #99c0ff; white-space:nowrap">Case opinions</th></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Majority</th><td>

Roberts, joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Concur/dissent</th><td> Alito</td></tr><tr><th scope="row" style="text-align:left">Dissent</th><td> Thomas</td></tr><tr><th colspan="2" style="text-align:center;background-color: #99c0ff; white-space:nowrap">Laws applied</th></tr><tr><td colspan="2" style="text-align:center"> 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), case law</td></tr></table>

Elonis v. United States, 13-983 U.S. ___ (2015), is a case heard on December 1, 2014 by the United States Supreme Court on whether conviction of threatening another person over interstate lines (under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c)) requires proof of subjective intent to threaten, or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening.[1] In controversy is the fact the purported threats consist of violent rap lyrics written by Anthony Douglas Elonis and posted to Facebook under a pseudonym.[2] The ACLU filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner.[1] This is the first time the Court has heard a case considering true threats and the limits of speech on social media.[3]

Background

Anthony Elonis was convicted on four counts of threats to local law enforcement, his estranged wife, an FBI agent, and a kindergarten class, relayed through interstate communication. He was sentenced to 44 months in prison.

Elonis' conviction was based on multiple public Facebook posts he wrote, including the following about his wife: “If I only knew then what I know now... I would have smothered your ass with a pillow. Dumped your body in the back seat. Dropped you off in Toad Creek and made it look like a rape and murder.”

Additionally, he wrote the following, based on a comedy sketch by The Whitest Kids U' Know, which originally referenced killing the President:

Did you know that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?

It's illegal.

It's indirect criminal contempt.

It's one of the only sentences that I'm not allowed to say.

Now it was okay for me to say it right then because I was just telling you that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife...

Elonis ended the post with the statement, "Art is about pushing limits. I'm willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are you?"

A week later, Elonis threatened local law enforcement and a kindergarten class, which caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after which he wrote a post on Facebook about one of the agents who visited him:
"...Took all the strength I had not to turn the bitch ghost

Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat

Leave her bleedin’ from her jugular in the arms of her partner..."

These actions led to Elonis' indictment and subsequent conviction on four of five counts, which he challenged in the Supreme Court based on his First Amendment rights.[2][3][4][5]

Decision

On June 1, 2015, the Supreme Court reversed Elonis' conviction in a 7-2 decision. Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote for a seven-justice majority, while Samuel Alito authored an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part and Clarence Thomas authored a dissenting opinion.

Footnotes

  1. ^ a b "Elonis v. United States". SCOTUSblog. Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  2. ^ a b John, Arit (October 5, 2014). "The 8 Most Important Cases in the New Supreme Court Term". Bloomberg Politics. Retrieved 6 October 2014. 
  3. ^ a b Emily Bazelon (November 25, 2014). "Do Online Death Threats Count as Free Speech?". The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved November 25, 2014. 
  4. ^ "Elonis v. United States, 13-983 Respondent Brief" (PDF). American Bar Association. Retrieved 26 November 2014. 
  5. ^ Robert Barnes (November 23, 2014). "Supreme Court case tests the limits of free speech on Facebook and other social media". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2014. 
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