Are Online Threats Protected Speech or Criminal Activity?

Mon Dec 01, 2014 14:44:41PM

A serviceman accessing social media on his computerBy: Harland Quarrington
What should happen if someone threatens to kill you on social media? Are they protected by the First Amendment right guaranteeing the right to freedom of speech, or are they breaking the law? We will soon know now the answer after the Supreme Court rules on a case that may have far reaching ramifications well beyond the single case they are hearing.

Anthony Elonis has asked the Supreme Court to throw out his conviction of threatening to kill his wife because he did so online and not in person. Every court has so far refused to throw out his conviction, but the Supreme Court decided that it was worthy of a hearing and they will be the final arbiter on the matter. Their decision is likely to be one of the most monumental free speech cases since their Citizens United ruling in 2010.

The internet has long been a refuge for individuals to hide behind as they post vile and hateful comments, but the thin line between freedom of speech and criminal activity has been blurred by usernames and internet trolls who think there are no limits to what they can say as long as they are typing it into a computer. Individuals like Mr. Elonis insist they are only venting when they post the threats and that they never intend to follow through on the threats. Others see these threats as no different than any other threat that can be used against you in criminal court.

This case has the potential to dramatically alter the way online threats are viewed and whether or not they are admissible in a court proceeding. The Court has never before heard a case on online threats and their ruling will set a precedent for cases large and small moving forward. Their ruling, as is the case with all of their rulings, will have unintended consequences for years to come. How far reaching or narrow will they rule? Will they tailor their ruling to this specific case or will they issue a far reaching ruling that changes the way you can interact on the internet for the foreseeable future?

I also wonder if the Court fully grasps what it is they are ruling on in the first place. It can go without saying that the makeup of the Court is not part of the technological revolution, but their ruling will be felt for years to come. I can only say that I hope they get it right.

So--is cyber-bulling protected speech or is it criminal activity? Stay tuned for the answer.
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Woah. I had no idea this was happening. It's scary to think of a Supreme Court ruling with wide ramifications for all internet users. Imagine the hoards of unnamed masses on Youtube that post comments in all kinds of threatening and hate-filled manners. If it becomes any kind of illegal, we best make sure to get the word out on the new rules. Otherwise, who knows how many kids could be facing criminal charges ultra quickly just by being rude and over the top with their online commenting.