We’ve reported on the United States v. Elonis in the past. This case involved a Northampton County man who made a series of threats on his Facebook page directed at his estranged wife, his employer, and an FBI agent who came to investigate a threat he made to attack an elementary school. Elonis, in his defense, claimed that his posts were not, in fact, threats, but rap lyrics and forms of artistic expression.

He was nonetheless charged with under 18 U.S.C. 875(c) which prohibits transmitting in interstate commerce a communication containing a threat to injure the person of another. He was eventually convicted at trial of four out of the five charges against him and sentenced to forty-four (44) months in jail. He conviction was upheld by through the appellate system and eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court who granted cert to hear his appeal. The Supreme Court overturned his conviction, but did not address any of the First Amendment claims or other issues raised on appeal except for what they viewed as an error in the jury instruction identifying the standard the jury was to apply to the offenses. Helpfully, however, Justice Samuel Alito articulated in a concurring/dissenting opinion a road map for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals – the court where the Supreme Court was remanding the case for further consideration – on how to have Elonis conviction upheld.

The Third Circuit did just that, finding that the jury instruction amounted to harmless error and he would have been convicted under either of the discussed standards since there was indisputable evidence in the record that Elonis intended his wife and others to perceive the statements as threats.

The reason this case is relevant to family law cases is that Elonis conviction proves that social media posts will be closely scrutinized by the courts to determine whether or not they can be construed as threats. There is no special First Amendment protection attached to them and context will have a huge affect on whether or not a statement will be interpreted as art or as a threat of harm. In this case, there can be little confusion that Elonis wanted to inflict fear and anxiety on his estranged wife and others around him. His threat to attack an elementary school with the intent to die in “blaze of glory” was concerning enough to prompt a visit from the FBI – an episode that prompted Elonis to “creatively write” and post shortly thereafter a scenario where he uses a knife to quickly slit the agent’s throat as she stood on his porch.

In short, even if Elonis had no intention of carrying out these acts, the trial court and Third Circuit found that he clearly intended them to be threats and whether that determination is made by a reasonable person or if his acts were interpreted as reckless was immaterial to the fact they were made and with a desired affect. Issues of the First Amendment and free speech were never considered and, frankly, I don’t think any court will be looking to carve out violent lyrics as being a protected class of speech. For every Eminem who wins Grammys for writing vividly violent verses about his ex-wife, there will be hundreds or thousands of people who try to circumvent their PFA Orders or try to intimidate an ex-partner through social media or other means and use the facade of “art” and “lyrics” to shield themselves from prosecution or being found to have violated a protective order.

What Court wants to define the line between art and threats? Quite simply, the courts – like many of us – don’t know how to define art, but know it when we see it. Similarly, we might not be able to define an easy catch-all definition of what constitutes a threat over social media, but we can discern context and content make those determinations on a case-by-case basis to ensure both the accused and accuser are protected under the law.

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Aaron Weems is an attorney and editor of the Pennsylvania Family Law Blog. Aaron is a partner in Fox Rothschild’s Blue Bell, Pennsylvania office and practices throughout the greater Philadelphia region. Aaron can be reached at 610-397-7989; aweems@foxrothschild.com, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.

 

A recent criminal case addressed, in part, an issue we saw in the case of Elonis v. United StatesThe Elonis case went to the U.S. Supreme Court which ultimately reversed the criminal conviction of a man based on statutory construction grounds that his Facebook postings did not offer the requisite mental intent to threaten the victim(s). The Supreme Court’s opinion did not  address any First Amendment rights, however.

The case of Commonwealth v. Lambert, involved a Protection from Abuse Order entered against Lambert, the victim’s ex-boyfriend.  Interestingly, and likely an insight into the voluminous use of social media by Lambert, was the specific PFA Order instruction that he shall refrain from posting “any remark(s) and/or images regarding Plaintiff, on any social network(s), including, but [not] limited to, Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, or any other electronic networks.” In other words, he was not permitted to post anything to social media pertaining to his ex-girlfriend. It should be noted that a Protection from Abuse Order restricts a perpetrator from having direct or indirect contact with a victim. If they do have contact, they could be subject to an Indirect Criminal Contempt.  PFA Orders are civil restraining orders to protect a victim, but they have criminal repercussions: a violation – either verbally, in writing, or physically – will land someone in jail.

With that context in mind, we look at what Lambert did to violate the PFA Order. A day after the Order was entered, he posted a series of Facebook comments in which he does not name his ex-girlfriend, but that she was clearly the subject of the posts. As the Superior Court points out, Trial Courts need to consider the context of the violation and “temporal proximity” of the statements. Perhaps if Lambert had not made his posts a day after he was found to have abused his ex-girlfriend, the context and temporal proximity would have led the court to a different interpretation. The posts were not actually threatening or outwardly menacing (though the victim could certainly feel otherwise), but, as the Court considered, the posts were about the victimThey were discovered by the ex-girlfriend when she went to his Facebook page – she testified that she regularly checks the page for her own knowledge since he is such a voracious social media user that if he was angry or having mental health issues she would have notice of them before risking an interaction with him.

The victim let her local police know about the postings; they contacted the District Attorney’s office, who then initiated the contempt action. He was subsequently found guilty of contempt. That conviction led to the appeal by Lambert as to whether his indirect criminal contempt conviction was a violation of his First Amendment rights to free speech and whether the lack of wrongful intent (i.e. the posts were not threats) should have led to acquittal.

The main issue the Superior Court considered was the First Amendment claim. The Court’s opinion on that issue can be summarized with concept that the PFA Order is contact-based not content-based.  In other words, the PFA does not restrict speech so much as it restricts who the speech is directed at.  This is an important distinctions since restrictions on content must be strictly scrutinized.  Here, however, the contact was – directly or indirectly – made to the victim through Lambert’s public (likely another factor) Facebook profile. By making statements about the victim on a public profile where she could reasonably be exposed to them, Lambert was, effectively, attempting to contact the victim.

As a consequence, his conviction was upheld. His mental intent argument – which successfully led to the overturning of the Elonis conviction – was unsuccessful, as well, since his mental intent to threaten was not at issue; merely the attempt to contact mattered – whether it was to threaten or say he was sorry is immaterial. It should also be noted that the standard of proof for Elonis was the criminal justice system’s “beyond a reasonable doubt,” whereas the standard for finding abuse occurred is the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard, though an indirect criminal contempt carries the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard.

The broader implication is that Facebook and social media can be and will be considered forms of communication with the victim of a PFA. Shouting into the void of social media is not without consequences and, as Lambert demonstrates, the intent is secondary to the act of communicating.