Supreme Court Overturns Conviction for Threatening Facebook Posts
In 2010, Anthony Elonis of Pennsylvania was angry at his wife for leaving him and began posting rap lyrics on Facebook about his wife and other topics. While Elonis claimed the rap lyrics served as a form of therapy for him, many of them contained violent content regarding his wife, law enforcement officers, and even schoolchildren. Elonis included disclaimers that he was merely expressing himself in line with his First Amendment rights, just as many other rappers with violent lyrics so often do. However, the Facebook posts still led his boss to fire him, his wife to obtain a restraining order against him, and ultimately for federal officials to arrest and charge him with making threats.
In his trial, his defense attorney argued that the jury should be instructed that, for a conviction, Elonis would have to have had the intention to make true threats, as the law requires intent. Elonis argued that he had the intent only to write and post lyrics, not to actually threaten anyone. However, the judge ruled in favor of the prosecutor and instructed the jury that Elonis should be convicted if a “reasonable person” would find the messages threatening. Elonis was then convicted of all counts and received a prison sentence.
Elonis’s appeal made it all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), which ruled on June 1st in his favor by overturning his conviction and sending the case back down to the lower courts. SCOTUS held that a “reasonable person” standard would only demonstrate negligence and was not enough to prove that Elonis had the required intent to make true threats. The court also noted Elonis’s arguments that well-established rapper Eminem regularly includes threatening messages to his ex-wife in his songs and, therefore, his violent rap lyrics are nothing new.
Though Elonis had his conviction overturned, the ruling does not mean that everyone is free to log on to Facebook and make threatening statements without consequence. In fact, everyone should always be very careful about what is posted on any social media site. These sites are accessible to more people than you may believe and may be regularly monitored by local, state, or even federal authorities. If you do find yourself arrested for something you posted online, you should call an attorney immediately.
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Prosecutors try to use many tools—such as jury instructions—to try to tip a case in their favor. For this reason, anyone facing criminal charges needs a defense attorney representing them who knows how to fight for their rights and argue against wrongful evidence, jury instructions, and other court rulings. The criminal defense attorneys at the Boca Raton law firm of Lavalle Brown & Ronan understand how to make all relevant legal arguments necessary to protect your legal rights and avoid wrongful conviction. If you have been charged, we should begin working on your case as soon as possible, so please call our office today at 888-646-1315.