It’s three months away, but it’s groundbreaking and past due: This December, the Supreme Court will rule on whether online threats are protected by the First Amendment based on whether they qualify as a threat by the intent of the person making it, or by the way a “reasonable person” would interpret the threat.
The latter is the way threats have been defined by the law, historically, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has decided that, in the case of Elonis v. United States, a threat is constituted by the intent of the person making the statement. Anthony Elonis of Pennsylvania has served 36 of 44 months of sentenced jail time for making threats on Facebook about his ex-wife after she left him with their children.
So this could either be fantastic or terrible for women on the Internet, depending on the way the Supreme Court decides to characterize Elonis’s statements. If online threats are qualified by the intent of the person making them, it’d be remarkably easy for trolls and online harassers to claim that they didn’t actually mean that they were going to maim, rape, or kill a target, they were just foolin’ around, y’know? On the other hand, if the historical qualification of threats is upheld, it’ll drastically change the conversation about what exactly trolls are, what exactly they’re doing, and what kind of behavior is appropriate online in addition to giving victims of trolling a legal tool to use against their bullies in worst-case scenarios.
And, I don’t know, I thought that the purpose of defining threats by the way they’re received was to make the process of interpreting speech in the most objective way we can manage. I’ll be awaiting the decision anxiously, myself. [Slate]