Supreme Court reverses conviction in Facebook threat case

Supreme Court reverses conviction in Facebook threat case
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The Supreme Court on Monday reversed the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for making violent threats on Facebook. 

The court found members of the jury who convicted the man were given incorrect instructions when they were told they did not have to take his mental state into consideration. 

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Justices ruled 7-2 to reverse the decision and hand the case against Anthony Elonis back to the lower courts.

“The jury was instructed that the Government need prove only that a reasonable person would regard Elonis’s communications as threats, and that was error,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion

The Supreme Court noted the mental state requirement would be satisfied if prosecutors could prove Elonis made the Facebook posts for the purpose of issuing a threat or with knowledge that they would be viewed as threats. 

But simply proving that a reasonable third-party would interpret the posts as a threat was not enough, the justices ruled. The Supreme Court avoided determining whether proving recklessness was enough to convict him. 

The Supreme Court focused its opinion on the law used to convict Elonis, avoiding a broader ruling on the First Amendment. 

Anthony Elonis was convicted in 2011 for making multiple violent threats on Facebook against his estranged wife, a kindergarten class and an FBI agent who subsequently investigated those posts. 

He 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 have to prove that a reasonable person who read the post would interpret them as threatening. 

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. 

First Amendment protections are not absolute and there are some exceptions, like making true threats. One of the questions presented to the Supreme Court was whether the First Amendment allowed a true threat conviction by only requiring the government to prove that a reasonable person would interpret the speech as threatening. 

The Supreme Court avoided ruling on that issue by finding that criminal law in general, including the one used to convict Elonis, already requires a higher burden.