Remember Anthony Elonis? He was sentenced to four years in federal prison after he posted original rap lyrics and other content concerning his wife, co-workers, a kindergarten class, and even a federal agent. A lower court held that Elonis’ posts constituted a “true threat” against those mentioned in his rants, and he served more than three years of his sentence before being released.
At controversy in the ensuing lawsuit was the prosecutor’s use of a low-hanging, “reasonable person” standard in his instructions to the jury. The Court had never specifically ruled on whether or not a prosecutor must show intent to carry out verbal or written threats in order to get a conviction; lower courts are split, with most requiring enough evidence to show that a reasonable person would see or hear the speech and believe that it is “a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual.”
In today’s ruling, the Supreme Court held that requiring only negligence with respect to the communication of a threat, is not sufficient to support a conviction under the statute that governed Elonis’ alleged crimes.
Negligence isn’t enough—but what is? In the opinion Roberts said that the conviction would have been upheld if the jury had found that Elonis knew or should have known that his posts would be seen as threats. The Court, however, declined to define a standard. We’re still going to see cases moving forward under the “true threat” theory defined in the same law used to convict Elonis, but how should the jury instructions read?
SCOTUSblog goes in-depth:
Anthony Elonis’s conviction for violating the threats law was explicitly overturned with the support of eight Justices; only Justice Clarence Thomas would have upheld the guilty verdict at this point. However, only seven Justices backed the majority opinion, because Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., would have reversed the verdict but also argued that it could have been upheld on another theory.
That alternative theory is that a person is guilty of making a threat by the Internet (or other communications) if the violent words were uttered recklessly — that is, knowing that he was taking a legal risk, but disregarding it. The main opinion in Elonis’s favor, written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., did not endorse that theory and in fact did not decide it, on the ground that it was not actually an issue in the appeal.
Justice Alito’s opinion on the recklessness point appeared to have been worded as if he wished it could have been applied in Elonis’s case, but actually was not. It is not clear whether the lower court in this case — the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit — could now apply that theory to this verdict, or whether Elonis’s case is actually over. It is also not clear whether the Third Circuit could now apply another theory that Alito’s opinion raised: that the flaw in the jury instructions in Elonis’s trial could be excused as “harmless error.”
As Roberts said elsewhere in the opinion, we enjoy a longstanding tradition of not using the low standard of negligence to show guilt for a crime. “Wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal,” but for now we’re not sure just how conscious is conscious enough, or how they would have ruled had any real First Amendment issues come up as a question of law.
Brace yourselves—those questions are coming. We’ll keep you updated when they do.DONATE
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