The Supreme Court will soon decide if threatening speech posted on the internet is protected by the First Amendment.
The Court said it will hear an appeal from a Pennsylvania man convicted of making threatening comments on Facebook against his estranged wife, elementary schools, judges and the FBI.
Anthony Elonis was convicted of transmitting threatening communications in interstate commerce and sentenced to 44 months in prison.
The case is Elonis v. United States.
Mr. Elonis’ lawyers argued an individual should not be convicted of making a threat unless there is evidence he actually intended violence. Elonis said much speech posted on the internet is “inherently susceptible to misinterpretation.” He insisted his posted remarks did not demonstrate a “subjective intent to threaten” based on previous Supreme Court precedent and are protected speech under the First Amendment.
The Justice Department countered by saying Elonis’ argument undermines “one of the central purposes of prohibiting threats,” which is to protect individuals “from the fear of violence and from the disruption that fear engenders.”
According to the government the defendant’s behavior was not merely “careless talk, exaggeration, something said in a joking manner or an outburst of transitory anger. The statements that qualify as true threats (from the defendant) thus have a significant, serious character.”
In the past the Court has ruled laws covering threats must not infringe on the First Amendment. This includes “political hyperbole” one may construe as subjectively threatening and “unpleasantly sharp attacks” that are not in fact true threats.
In The Ethics of Liberty Murray Rothbard argues that threats must be “palpable, immediate, and direct” and “embodied in the initiation of an overt act” in order to be considered actual threats. Language, no matter how abusive or subjectively threatening, cannot be regarded as violence.
If the Court rules in favor of the government, the landscape of the internet will change dramatically. Political hyperbole, often uncivil and “unpleasantly sharp,” will become illegal and subject to prosecution.
Last month Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid moved to amend the Constitution in order to limit political speech.
“If ultimately adopted, it would mark the first time in American history that a constitutional amendment rescinded a freedom listed as among the fundamental rights of the American people,” warns Ken Klukowski.
Political speech falling outside the parameters set by the ruling political class constitutes a threat to the establishment. This speech flourishes on the internet, specifically on alternative news media websites.
Many lawmakers may indeed be outraged by the ability of individuals like Anthony Elonis to issue verbal threats over the internet. However, for the elite, the overriding agenda is to limit and outlaw speech that may endanger their hold on political power.