Dem bill would make it easier to get online threat convictions

Dem bill would make it easier to get online threat convictions

A group of Democratic senators is pushing legislation that would make it easier to convict people who make violent threats online. 

The bill, led by Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne FeinsteinA guide to the committees: Senate Dem: Trump's China trademark looks like a quid pro quo Senate advances Trump's Commerce pick MORE (D-Calif.), is a response to a Supreme Court decision last year that reversed the conviction of Anthony Elonis, who had been sentenced for making violent threats against his estranged wife, a kindergarten class and an FBI agent on Facebook.  

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It is already a federal crime to post threats to kidnap or injure a person. But the new bill clarifies the level of intent required for a conviction. 

Last year, the Supreme Court ruled that if people intend their statements to be a threat or even have knowledge that their words could be interpreted as a threat, they would violate the law. But the legislation goes further, allowing a conviction even if an individual “recklessly disregarded the risk” that a statement could be interpreted as a threat.

The Supreme Court noticeably did not address the recklessness question. Instead, it reversed the conviction by a 7-2 vote after finding the lower courts handed out the wrong instructions to a jury to evaluate Elonis’s mental state. 

“This bill will establish an explicit intent requirement for the federal threats statute, eliminating ambiguities that make it harder for prosecutors, victims, and defendants alike to know what conduct is criminal,” said Sen. Dick DurbinDick DurbinDems rip Trump administration for revoking Obama's transgender directive A guide to the committees: Senate McConnell: I’m very sympathetic to 'Dreamers' MORE (D-Ill.) who also sponsored the bill. 

Other co-sponsors include Sens. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseA guide to the committees: Senate Pruitt confirmation sets stage for Trump EPA assault Senate Dems ask DHS inspector general for probe of Trump’s business arrangement MORE (D-R.I.) and Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharDrug importation won't save dollars or lives Senators ask feds for ‘full account’ of work to secure election from cyber threats Sanders, not Trump, is the real working-class hero MORE (D-Minn.). Records show the bill was introduced earlier this month, but supporters only highlighted it Monday. 

The Supreme Court focused its opinion last year on the law used to convict Elonis, avoiding a broader ruling on the First Amendment. Elonis was convicted under a law that makes it illegal to make violent threats through interstate commerce, which includes a social media post over the Internet.

The question posed was whether prosecutors were required to prove Elonis actually intended to threaten with his Facebook posts. The federal government and lower courts had argued they only had to prove that a reasonable person who read the post would interpret them as threatening, which the Supreme Court ruled was not enough. 

Elonis had argued he did not intend to follow through on the threats and described them as rap lyrics. Some of his posts referenced the First Amendment and contained comparisons to famous rap lyrics or a comedy routine.