US Supreme Court

Imagine separating from your spouse and leaving him or her. You take the kids with you and move to a new home. You try to build a new life for yourself. Then, one day, you sign onto Facebook and encounter a post from your former spouse envisioning a particularly grisly murder scenario — and you’re the purported victim. Would you be afraid?

The above scenario is exactly what happened to the wife of Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man who has served time in prison for posting terrifying threats on Facebook about all the things he’d like to do to her.

According to Slate, here’s one gem of many Elonis posted on Facebook (warning, graphic language):

There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch, so I can bust this nut all over your corpse from atop your shallow grave. I used to be a nice guy but then you became a slut. Guess it’s not your fault you liked your daddy raped you. So hurry up and die, bitch, so I can forgive you.

Elonis was convicted in federal court of a violation of Interstate Communication law, which states, “Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”

As Elonis sits in prison, his lawyers have continued to appeal his case to the highest of courts. Today the Supreme Court decided it will hear the case in Elonis v. United States.

It’s the first time the Supreme Court will rule regarding how virtual threats to an individual should be interpreted and treated in the eyes of the law. State and federal courts have not reached a consensus on what constitutes a legitimate online threat, subject to criminal punishment. Some courts have ruled that the intent of the person making the threat is what matters, while others have focused on the experience of the victim threatened. For the Supreme Court to take on this issue means there could finally be a definitive answer and a national precedent for prosecuting such cases.

The issue is more pertinent now than ever, with social media becoming an integral part of people’s professional and personal lives. Unfortunately, virtual threats — when extend beyond just cyber bullying — are a real problem.

Amanda Hess wrote about her experience in a January edition of the Pacific Standard. The brilliantly reported piece addresses how unsafe the Web can be for women, detailing her own experience of trying to tell a cop about a man threatening on Twitter — promising actually — to come to her home and rape and decapitate her. The cop’s reaction wasn’t particularly helpful. He said, “What is Twitter?”

Likewise, Twitter’s reaction to the threats was “Tell law enforcement.” With everyone pointing fingers elsewhere, the victim doesn’t have a place to turn for help.

Of course there should be an avenue for legal recourse from virtual threats. But in the same token, policing what gets said online gets dangerously close to impeding freedom of speech. Technically, threats aren’t protected under the First Amendment due to a “true threats” exception clause. But online, distinguishing between a legitimate threat and non-threat is much harder.

In Elonis’  lawyers petition to the Supreme Court, they argued exactly that point: “The issue is growing in importance as communication online by e-mail and social media has become commonplace…The inherently impersonal nature of online communication makes such messages inherently susceptible to misinterpretation.”

The case will be heard starting next October.

[Image via Wiki Commons]