360° Coverage : Free speech or illegal threats? Justices could say

Free speech or illegal threats? Justices could say

Jun 7 2014, 11:48pm CDT | by

WASHINGTON (AP) — Messages posted on Facebook and Twitter or sent in emails can be tasteless, vulgar and even disturbing.

But just when do they cross the line from free speech to threats that can be punished as a crime?

As the Internet and social networks allow people to vent their frustrations with the click of a mouse, the Supreme Court is being asked to clarify the First Amendment rights of people who use violent or threatening language on electronic media where the speaker's intent is not always clear.

The justices could decide as early as Monday whether to hear appeals in two cases where defendants were convicted and sent to jail for making illegal threats, despite their claims that they never meant any harm.

In one case, a Pennsylvania man ranted on Facebook in the form of rap lyrics about killing his estranged wife, blowing up an amusement park, slitting the throat of an FBI agent and committing "the most heinous school shooting ever imagined."

The other case involves a Florida woman who emailed a conservative radio talk show host about "second amendment gun rights" and said she was planning "something big" at a Broward County government building or school.

"I'm going to walk in and teach all the government hacks working there what the 2nd Amendment is all about," the email said. Her comments triggered a lockdown affecting more than a quarter-million students.

In both cases, the defendants were prosecuted under a federal statute that makes it crime to transmit a "threat to injure the person of another." Those laws apply only to "true threats" that are not protected by the First Amendment under a doctrine established by the Supreme Court in 1969. The high court has said laws prohibiting threats must not infringe on constitutionally protected speech that includes "political hyperbole" or "vehement," ''caustic," or "unpleasantly sharp attacks" that fall shy of true threats.

Most lower courts say determining a true threat depends on how an objective person would understand the message. But lawyers for the defendants, along with some free-speech groups, say it should depend on the speaker's state of mind. They say the rise of new forms of social media and the freedom of political discourse can lead people to misinterpret comments that are colorful political tirades or coarse rap lyrics not meant to threaten harm.

Those who support a subjective standard say the threat law should be governed by the Supreme Court's 2003 ruling in Virginia v. Black. In that case, the court invalidated Virginia's law against cross-burning because it did not include a crucial component: whether the Ku Klux Klan intended to intimidate someone by burning the cross.

The Obama administration says the cross-burning case does not require a specific intent to threaten. In its brief to the court, Justice Department attorneys say requiring proof of a subjective threat would undermine the law's purpose.

The wife of the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, man, Anthony Elonis, testified at his trial that the postings made her fear for her life. One post about his wife said, "There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts."

FBI agents visited Elonis at home after the amusement park that fired him contacted law enforcement officials about his posts. After the agents left, Elonis wrote: "Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the (woman) ghost. Pull my knife, flick my wrist and slit her throat."

Elonis says he never meant to carry out the threats. He claims he was depressed and made the online posts in the form of rap lyrics as a way to vent his frustration after his wife left him.

Samuel Randall, attorney for Ellisa Martinez in the Florida case, said his client was attempting to make a mocking political point about the dangers of gun violence when she emailed the radio station. He said Martinez, of New Port Richey on Florida's Gulf Coast, never intended to cause such a big problem or harm anyone.

___

Follow Sam Hananel on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SamHananelAP

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/31" rel="author">Associated Press</a>
The Associated Press (AP) is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

Investments pouring in from Singapore: Bengal minister
Singapore, Aug 20 (IANS) Camping here to woo investors, West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra Wednesday said many companies have signed joint ventures and letters of intent promising to pump in at least Rs.1,200 crore in his state.
 
 
111-year-old Japanese officially declared world's oldest man
Tokyo, Aug 20 (IANS/EFE) Sakari Momoi, a 111-year-old Japanese citizen, was Wednesday officially recognised in Tokyo as the oldest man in the world by the Guinness World Records award committee.
 
 
Is your college going kid more active on weekends?
New York, Aug 20 (IANS) Parents always suspect that their college going kids prefer weekends to weekdays. Now there is proof that college graduates are more active on weekends compared to non-college goers.
 
 
How brain can multitask better
Toronto, Aug 20 (IANS) Cooking while having a conversation, watching a movie while browsing the Web, or driving while listening to a radio show - multitasking is an essential skill in our daily lives. Make it better now.
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

PTI agrees for talks with Pakistani government (Third Lead)
Islamabad, Aug 20 (IANS) The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has agreed to talks with the government over alleged rigging of the 2013 general elections, a media report said. Senior PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi told...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Black Friday 2014 is Less than 100 Days Away
Black Friday 2014 is less than 100 days away. When is Black Friday 2014? Black Friday 2014 is on November 28th. Of course the Black Friday sales start already weeks before the actual Black Friday. Which means the first...
Read more on Black Friday Countdown
 
47 arrested in US town after fresh riots
Washington, Aug 20 (IANS/EFE) Forty-seven people were arrested overnight in Ferguson in the US state of Missouri after protestors hurled bottles at police in fresh outbreak of violence over the shooting death of an...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Is your deodorant making your armpits smell worse?
New York, Aug 20 (IANS) Deodorants and antiperspirants are being more widely used and advertised than ever before, but did you know that they may actually make you smell worse in the long run? According to a study,...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Indian found dead in Oman
Muscat, Aug 20 (IANS) An Indian national was found dead in his room in Oman, media reported. The victim, 26, who has been identified by his friends as Siby, an automobile spare parts shop salesman from Kerala, was...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Investments pouring in from Singapore: Bengal minister
Singapore, Aug 20 (IANS) Camping here to woo investors, West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra Wednesday said many companies have signed joint ventures and letters of intent promising to pump in at least Rs.1,200...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
ISAF soldier killed in Afghanistan
Kabul, Aug 20 (IANS) A soldier of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was killed in Afghanistan Wednesday. "An International Security Assistance Force service member died of wounds as a result...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
111-year-old Japanese officially declared world's oldest man
Tokyo, Aug 20 (IANS/EFE) Sakari Momoi, a 111-year-old Japanese citizen, was Wednesday officially recognised in Tokyo as the oldest man in the world by the Guinness World Records award committee. Momoi bags the title...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Is your college going kid more active on weekends?
New York, Aug 20 (IANS) Parents always suspect that their college going kids prefer weekends to weekdays. Now there is proof that college graduates are more active on weekends compared to non-college goers. A study...
Read more on Apple Balla
 
How brain can multitask better
Toronto, Aug 20 (IANS) Cooking while having a conversation, watching a movie while browsing the Web, or driving while listening to a radio show - multitasking is an essential skill in our daily lives. Make it better...
Read more on Apple Balla