Facebook Case Tests Scope of 'True Threat'

A man convicted of making threats using Facebook has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to resolve a circuit split over what constitutes a “true threat.”

Under the pseudonym “Tone Dougie,” Anthony Douglas Elonis posted violent content on Facebook about his wife and others, often in the form of rap lyrics.

Elonis was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c), which makes it a federal crime to transmit “any threat to injure the person of another” in interstate commerce. There are comparable state laws.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit rejected Elonis’ appeal.

In February, the University of Virginia School of Law’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic filed a petition for certiorari on behalf of Elonis. John Elwood, a Vinson & Elkins partner and clinic instructor, is the counsel of record. Elwood is also a former assistant to the solicitor general and clerk to Justice Anthony Kennedy. The brief in opposition is due April 21, so the justices could act soon on the petition.

Virginia v. Black, a 2003 Supreme Court opinion about cross burning, held that when a speaker “means to communicate a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence to a particular individual or group of individuals,” that is a true threat. Such threats are not protected speech under the First Amendment.

The petition outlines a split among federal courts of appeals and state high courts over the Black case’s true threat definition. One interpretation focuses on the speaker, while the other focuses on the speaker and the listener.

Does the phrase “means to communicate” mean that the speaker must subjectively intend a threat, or is it enough that the message sent comes across objectively as a threat?

The petition also notes that at least eight state high courts are in conflict with the federal courts of appeals covering their region. For instance, the First Circuit utilizes an objective test, while Massachusetts and Rhode Island follow a subjective one. State-federal conflicts are present in the Second and Ninth Circuits, too, the petition reports.

The Third Circuit applied the objective test, the majority view, to uphold Elonis’ Facebook convictions.

In his petition, Elonis argues for the subjective test, submitting that he was just using Facebook therapeutically, as his marriage had broken up and he had lost his job. The Facebook posts, the petition contends, “certainly involve no more violent imagery than songs by any one of scores of popular rappers, including the Eminem songs about the rapper’s ex-wife that inspired several of petitioner’s posts.”

In his Facebook posts, Elonis brought up the First Amendment, linking to a Wikipedia entry on freedom of speech. In one post, he wrote, “Art is about pushing limits. I’m willing to go to jail for my constitutional rights. Are you?”

The petition includes a rudimentary description of Facebook, a subtle recognition of the justices’ admitted lack of online savvy: Users have “a home page on which the user can post comments, photos, and links to other websites.” They “may become ‘friends’ with other users.”

Justice Elena Kagan has said that justices do not even use email.

Circuit Split Watch is a monthly column examining federal appellate splits that may lead to Supreme Court review. The author, attorney Michelle Olsen, publishes Appellate Daily, a Twitter feed and blog about federal appeals.

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