The Supreme Court of the United States is currently considering the case of Elonis v. United States. This case presents a unique opportunity to decide what types of speech deserve First Amendment protections in an age of social media, and how we should legally understand what it means to threaten another.
In 2010, Mr. Anthony Elonis, having been left by his wife and two kids and fired from his job, began posting a series of dark and violent comments on his Facebook page. Sometimes Elonis took on a rap persona and posted his comments as lyrics. His posts included threats to murder his wife, kill a female FBI agent, commit a school shooting, and blow up the amusement park where he once worked. Elonis was arrested and convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), a federal statute making it a crime to issue “any threat to injure the person of another,” and spent nearly three years in prison.
Now the Supreme Court must decide whether Elonis’ conviction was appropriate, which turns on whether his Facebook comments should be viewed as protected speech or unprotected “true threats.” Determining this requires ruling on the extent to which “subjective intent” – the state of a person’s mind – matters when evaluating whether a person’s comments are actually threatening. The Court’s decision will affect many prosecutions for threats, especially those involving rap lyrics and social media.
The decision taken on Elonis v. US will thus likely have far-reaching consequences for the future of First Amendment jurisprudence, and several advocacy groups have submitted amicus briefs for the case. Writers of these briefs include experts on civil liberties, hip-hop, hate speech, victim’s rights, domestic violence and press freedom.
This conference brings together some of these experts and invites them to outline their positions, explain how this decision will effect vital societal interests, and debate whether the Court, in the age of new media, should favor a more expansive free speech doctrine – or more robust federal powers to curb threatening speech.
JOIN US – the students and faculty of POL 197a The Supreme Court Colloquium – for an afternoon with the writers of these briefs, as they debate the case and its implications, and advance our thinking about how new media complicates the future of the First Amendment.