JC Schildbach, LMHC
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that making threats on social media isn’t always making threats on social media.
Call it the jk standard.
Or don’t call it that. That’s not really what the Supreme Court decided.
In this particular case, (Elonis v. United States, 13-983 U.S. ___ (2015)) a rather sad and unpleasant man named Anthony Douglas Elonis took to calling himself “Tone Dougie” on Facebook, where he wrote and posted “lyrics” and “comedy routines” involving threats to his ex-wife, former co-workers, an FBI agent, and elementary school children. But the Supreme Court really only decided whether the jury that convicted Elonis of criminal offenses was given the appropriate instructions for deciding that conviction.
So, the Supreme Court was not looking at whether Elonis legitimately acted in a criminal fashion, but whether the jury was instructed to apply the wrong standard in his case. In the court that convicted Elonis, the jury was asked to apply the “reasonable person” standard that is used in civil cases involving threats, when they should have been asked to apply the “criminal intent” standard that is used in criminal cases.
In other words, it’s as if the jury was instructed to decide whether Elonis should be forced to pay a financial penalty to the people he antagonized, and the jury said ‘yes,’ so Elonis got thrown in prison. The question the jury was asked did not match up with the penalty Elonis received—legally anyway.
So, while “reasonable persons” might recognize that Elonis was deliberately threatening his wife and numerous other people, a criminal conviction generally requires a standard of “criminal intent”—or proof that it was Elonis’ intent to threaten his wife, and the others.
The jury should have been instructed to decide whether Mr. Elonis had intended for his posts to be viewed as threats by those people who were the targets of those threats. Elonis argued that his posts were just “art” and a “therapeutic” way of working through his pain after his wife took their children and left him. Elonis and his lawyers pointed to Eminem as an artist who has built much of his career on songs threatening violence against his ex, and to the other posts on Elonis’ facebook feed where he asserted he was engaging in protected free speech, joking, or that otherwise had nothing to do with the threats, as proof that Elonis was not deliberately threatening anybody. That is, Elonis argued that he had artistic and self-soothing intent, not intent to threaten anybody. And, although reasonable people might call bullshit on Mr. Elonis’ argument, reasonable people don’t count here.
There is ample evidence to suggest that Mr. Elonis did, in fact, intend for his targets to feel threatened. For instance, one of his jaunty little poems/rap songs questioned whether his wife’s protection order–granted because a judge saw that there was legitimate reason to keep Mr. Elonis away from his wife and their children–would, when folded up and stuffed in her pocket, be “thick enough to stop a bullet.” That same “poem” included claims that Elonis stood to earn plenty of money in a “settlement” against the police, and claims to own explosives that could be used against state police and sheriffs.
Another of Elonis’ quirky little fantasies involved slitting the throat of the (female) FBI agent who was sent to his house to question him about a Facebook post wherein Mr. Elonis suggested he was going to gain fame by shooting up an elementary school.
Elonis also posted some “art” suggesting that he could easily sneak into the Halloween events at the amusement park he was fired from, in order to engage in violence.
Such fun. So expressive.
Grammar fans are also upset by Elonis’ use of the botched phrase, “if worse comes to worse,” in his poem about his wife’s protection order.
There were other posts involving insults and threats against his wife, calling her a slut and a whore, indicating he should have smothered her with a pillow, posting floor plans of the house where she was staying, and describing how, from a nearby cornfield, he would have a clear shot in through some glass doors at said house.
And beyond just the words that Elonis posted, there were plenty of other indications that his words were meant as more than just artistic expressions.
For instance, Elonis called his sister-in-law to make sure his wife had seen his posts on Facebook. And, prior to threatening his co-workers online, he was fired, in part, because he had begun to undress in front of a female coworker after cornering her in her office one night.
But—and this is a big but—the Supreme Court wasn’t deciding whether Elonis’ actions were A-OK, or whether he was engaging in acts of protected speech. In fact, the Court declined to address the issues of free speech, since the main question was about whether Elonis had been wrongly convicted.
Simply stated, the Court decided that, because Elonis was convicted on criminal charges by a jury using the standards for a civil decision, Elonis had been wrongly convicted of a criminal offense.
This is not to say that the jury would not or should not have convicted Elonis had the jury been given the appropriate instructions–to decide Elonis’ (criminal) guilt based on whether he had criminal intent to threaten his wife and other parties—rather than deciding whether a reasonable person would have recognized Elonis’ words and actions as threatening.
So take heart, reasonable people. The Elonis case does not mean that threats are now a protected form of speech. I would guess that a jury would likely see Elonis’ behavior as meeting the criminal standard of having legitimate intent to threaten—given the specificity of the targets and actions laid out in his ‘rap lyrics.’ That the targets of Elonis’ behavior took his words as legitimate threats, and lived in fear of what he might do, and that his “art” provoked the necessity for a visit and monitoring by the FBI, suggests that Elonis was not somebody who was just a misunderstood artist.
Yet, that’s a question for another day. Or, put a different way, the Supreme Court makes decisions based on the questions it gets, not the questions the public wants answered. And the only question the Court really decided here was whether the jury got the right instructions to make the decision they were tasked with making in the Elonis case.
To be sure, the Supreme Court’s decision leads to a shift in how cases like Elonis’ will have to be prosecuted. Plenty of lower courts have allowed criminal convictions using the same “reasonable person” standard that was used in the Elonis case. And the “criminal intent” standard can be much harder to prove.
There is much to be said about how to successfully address online threats, and questions of how our slow-moving legal system can adequately respond to rapidly- changing technology and online environments. For practical advice on those issues, Crash Override, started by Gamergate target Zoe Quinn, is an excellent resource
And in related entertainment news, I’m guessing Tone Dougie’s album drops around the 12th of Never.