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.
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; firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter @AaronWeemsAtty.