Supreme Court to Hear Facebook Threats Case
Justin Patchin, a Professor of Criminal Justice in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire said "It has been a long issue of confusion or contention with respect to identifying at what point commentary online crosses the line. We've long known that people have free speech rights, those rights are restricted when people are making threats."
He said, however, in criminal court there is a standard of intent "true threat" that has to be proven. "The court wills evaluate that standard of whether a reasonable person would be threatened by remarks made online, even if the person who made the remarks didn't intend to cause harm."
Patchin pointed out while intent is typically proven in a criminal court, there are "a number of exceptions." He said this means the Supreme Court is going to look the most at whether another exception should be made.
In this particular case, Elonis posted messages that not only targeted his ex-wife, but police officers and children. "Especially when you make threats against a law enforcement officer, and kids...he sort of hit all of the wrong buttons," Patchin said.
"If you take this person's word for it, he said that these were essentially rap lyrics,” Patchin said.
He added, “You can certainly point to other musicians who have said as bad, if not worse things about their significant officers or former significant others or about law enforcement. Look at all of the songs like Cop Killer...Eminem has many of those songs...yet none of them were prosecuted for their lyrics. So how does this differ from those kinds of speeches or expressions?"
But, according to Patchin, there are a lot of behaviors online that fall into a grey area. "I think a lot of people would think that you shouldn't have the right to threaten someone online and hide behind art, or say that you really weren't serious. But others have the view that there’s no intent to cause harm, so what are you worried about?"
Patchin said the Supreme Court’s ruling will set a precedent and provide legal framework for lawyers fighting similar cases around the country. "I think the greatest lawyers in the country are debating these things and they’ll continue to do so even after this particular ruling comes down.”