The Supreme Court on Monday said it would review the case of a man convicted of making threats, based on the ultra-violent rap lyrics and declarations he blasted forth on Facebook.
What Anthony D. Elonis posted was undeniably graphic; gruesome, even. Parts of his petition cannot be quoted directly in a family publication.
The legal question, though is whether conviction on the charge of of threatening another person requires proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten, or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening.
A Pennsylvania resident, Mr. Elonis was an employee at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom, an amusement park in Allentown when his life took a turn for the worse in 2010.
At one point, after his wife left, Mr. Elonis posted that his son “should dress up as matricide for Halloween,” adding, “I don’t know what his costume would entail though. Maybe [petitioner’s wife’s] head on a stick?”
At another point, he posted that “if worse comes to worse, I’ve got enough explosives to take care of the state police and the sheriff’s department.” Still later, in November 2010, he posted this:
“That’s it, I’ve had about enough
I’m checking out and making a name for myself
Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius
to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever
And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a
The only question is . . . which one?”
He went on in this vein for a while, including explicit references to a female FBI special agent who visited him. A jury convicted him of multiple counts of making threats.
In today’s Internet environment, the Elonis legal team argues, the best way to protect free speech is to judge the threatening content of words based on the speaker’s intent, rather than a black-and-white reading of the words.
“Modern media allow personal reflections intended for a small audience (or no audience) to be viewed widely by people who are unfamiliar with the context in which the statements were made and thus who may interpret the statements much differently than the speaker intended,” the Elonis petition states.
John P. Elwood is the counsel of record, joined by students with the University of Virginia School of Law Supreme Court Litigation Clinic. Mr. Elonis served his sentence and was released in February.