Sunday, June 08, 2014

Are Online Threats Crimes or Free Speech?

(U.S.A.)  The Supreme Court of the United States may soon decide whether or not to hear appeals of two cases in with people were convicted and sent to jail for making online threats, even though they later said they didn’t mean any harm.

In one case, Anthony Elonis of Pennsylvania, wrote on Facebook about killing his estranged wife. According to the Associated Press, he said:

 “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”

The woman testified in court that she feared for her life. Elonis was sentenced to almost four years, and was released on February 14, 2014, according to The Express-Times. 

Email to talk show 

 In the second case, Ellisa Martinez of Florida sent an anonymous email to a talk show host. According to the Connecticut Law Tribune, Martinez said she was:

“planning something big around a government building here in Broward County, maybe a post office, maybe even a school, I’m going to walk in and teach all the government hacks working there what the 2nd amendment is all about.” 

As a result of the email, Broward County schools were locked down for three hours.

Martinez pleaded guilty. The judge sentenced Martinez to two years in prison, and ordered her to pay more than $5,000 as restitution to the police.

In both of these cases, the appellants are arguing that their statements, regardless of the threatening nature, should be protected as free speech under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Threats and custody battle 

A similar case was appealed to the Supreme Court last year. Franklin Delano Jeffries II, an Iraq war veteran from Tennessee, posted a YouTube video in which he played a guitar and sang a song that he wrote about his 13-year child custody battle. The lyrics included:

The best interest ain’t of the child anymore. The judges and the lawyers are abusing ‘em. [Pointing at camera]. Let’s get them out of office. Vote ‘em out of office. . . . ‘Cause you don’t deserve to be a judge and you don’t deserve to live. You don’t deserve to live in my book. 

Watch Jeffries video on Wired.com.

Jeffries posted a link to his video on Facebook and sent links to 29 Facebook users, including a state representative, a TV station. Twenty-five hours later, he removed the YouTube video.

Jeffries was arrested. According to KnoxNews.com, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office determined that Jeffries made “veiled threats” to the Knox County chancellor, his ex-wife and her husband.

Jeffries was convicted for using the Internet to transmit a death threat and sentenced to 18 months in jail, KnoxNews.com stated. Although he had been freed in 2012, he was in trouble again for using cocaine and making threats of suicide and murder on Twitter.

Read: Tweets land ex-soldier convicted in YouTube case behind bars, on KnoxNews.com. 

 Jeffries appealed his conviction for making the YouTube video and lost. Last year he appealed to the United States Supreme Court. His appeal was rejected.

Threatening language online 

In the two new cases, according to the Associated Press, “the Supreme Court is being asked to clarify the First Amendment rights of people who use violent or threatening language on electronic media where the speaker’s intent is not always clear.”

The American Bar Association has published more detail about the Anthony Elonis case, and it’s pretty scary:

After his wife of seven years and two children left him, Anthony Elonis was having a tough time at work, and was even sent home on a few occasions for being too upset to work. He was employed at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom. One of the employees that Elonis supervised, Amber Morrissey, had filed several sexual harassment complaints against him. Elonis then posted a photograph on his Facebook page, taken at the Dorney Park Halloween Haunt, of him holding a knife to Morrissey’s neck with the caption, “I wish.” A supervisor saw this and immediately fired him. Two days after he was fired, Morrissey began posting violent messages about his former employer on his Facebook page. He also posted Facebook messages about killing his wife. Based on these statements, a state court issued Elonis’ wife a Protection From Abuse order. Ms. Elonis testified at trial that she took the threats seriously, and feared for her own and her children’s lives. Elonis’s Facebook threats kept escalating to a point where he was threatening police forces and elementary schools. By this point, the FBI became involved and, when they went to his home to interview him, Elonis refused to speak with them, and posted a message about it later on Facebook. 

I hope that the Supreme Court understands that online threats can be precursors to serious violence.

By declining to hear the Jeffries case, the Supreme Court let his conviction stand. It could do the same thing with the Elonis case, which would mean his conviction would stand as well.

But perhaps the Court should hear the arguments, and then declare, once and for all, that online threats are crimes.

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