Justices consider social media, free speech
WASHINGTON — Anthony Elonis went to prison after writing Facebook messages suggesting he might kill his wife. Now, his case is before the Supreme Court, which will consider for the first time how free-speech rights apply on social media.
Elonis, who cites singer Eminem as an inspiration, says his messages were rap lyrics that weren’t intended as threats and deserve protection as speech. Among his posts: “I’m not gonna rest until your body is a mess.” Another envisioned his wife’s “head on a stick.”
The court on Dec. 1 will consider overturning Elonis’s conviction for threatening his wife, local school children and an FBI agent. At stake, he says, is how much freedom users of social media have to express themselves.
“It would be very chilling on communications” if the verdict against Elonis is upheld, said John Elwood, his lawyer. “It would sweep in too much protected speech, and it’s just too lax a basis to go to jail.”
The dispute pits free speech defenders worried about the criminalization of online communications against advocates for crime victims who fear the court could erect barriers to prosecuting stalkers.
“This case is just about threatening speech,” lawyers for the National Network to End Domestic Violence wrote in court papers. “Advances in technology give perpetrators of intimate partner violence an ever-increasing array of tools to threaten their victims.”
The case stems from Facebook posts Elonis made after his wife left him in 2010 with their two children and he was fired from his job at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom, an amusement park in Pennsylvania.
Before Halloween, he wrote that his son’s costume should be “matricide” and include his wife’s “head on a stick.” He later posted on the site: “There’s one way to love ya but a thousand ways to kill ya/ And I’m not gonna rest until your body is a mess.”