Court to examine Facebook threats

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The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear arguments in a case over whether threats on Facebook count as actual threats.

The case centers on a Pennsylvania man named Anthony Elonis who was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for a series of violent rants he posted on the social network about co-workers, police and his ex-wife.

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In posts, he reportedly promised to kill his ex-wife in “a thousand ways” and “pull my knife, flick my wrist and slit [the] throat” of an FBI agent, among other acts of violence.

Elonis has argued that he never meant to actually go through with the acts. The posts, which often took a form of rap lyrics, should be protected by the constitutional right to free speech, he has said.

The court’s ruling could settle the legally murky domain of website comments and blog posts, and could have a significant impact on how people use in the Internet in years to come.

“This is an important question because individuals increasingly face prosecution for alleged threats conveyed on new media, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter,” three free speech organizations wrote in a petition urging the court to take up the case. “If context really is a key variable in determining the point at which speech loses First Amendment protection ... then lower courts urgently need this Court’s guidance on how the context of online social media affects the true threats analysis.”

Arguments in the case will likely occur this fall, once the high court begins its new term.

The case before the court is Elonis v. United States.