Sunday, June 08, 2014

Supreme Court may take up two cases involving hyperbolic "threats" made online


The Supreme Court is being asked to consider two cases involving free speech and “implicit content”, that is, cases where some persons believe that speech intended as fantasy, fiction or hyperbole are taken as threats by others, possibly because the speech doesn’t seem to have any other purpose.  The Supreme Court could decide as soon as Monday, June 9, 2014 whether to take either or both of these cases.

Sam Hananel has an Associated Press column June 7, 2014, “Free speech or illegal threats? Justices could say”, link here. I saw the story on my cell phone yesterday on the ABCNews site as I had dinner outside along the Washington DC Capital Pride route.

Both cases involved defendants who were convicted under federal laws involving making threats online.

One case involves a Pennsylvania man who ranted online in rap lyrics about his estranged wife and then apparently about bombing an amusement park where he worked.  The defendant was Anthony Elonis, whose story is shown in a Pennsylvania paper here.  He was convicted at a trial in 2011.  Elonis had made an unsuccessful appeal to the Third Circuit.  Apparently this involved more than one post.

Another case involved a woman who wrote an email to a conservative radio talk show host about guns and hinted that she would “do something big” to a Broward County, FL government facility. There is a detailed story in a Fort Lauderdale newspaper (the Sun Sentinel) here.  Apparently she had intended to mock the pro 2nd-amendment rhetoric of conservative radio talk show host Joyce Kaufman, but a school lockdown resulted.  
  
Defense attorneys note that social media invite ordinary people to become more inventive in the content they post, but others who read it (especially employers or law enforcement authorities) may misinterpret such posts out of context.

It's not clear here that the Court has two different appellate rulings to settle. 

My own case, where a school at where I had worked as a substitute teacher, became concerned after administrators found (or were told about) a screenplay I had posted online in which a character (“the Sub”) resembling me becomes vulnerable to the advances of a precocious but legally underage male character (post here July 27, 2007, or on WordPress here, posted March 6, 2014.  Again, my own story shows how short a fuse school officials have if a staff member (or a student) makes a public statement that can even reasonably be misinterpreted as a “threat” or as casting needless doubt on a teacher’s (even a sub’s) fitness.  



Update: June 16, 2014

The Supreme Court has announced that it will hear the Pennsylvania case.  News accounts mention the infusion of rap lyrics into the speech making it a kind of parody,  The Morning Call has a story here.  It's not clear whether it will also consider the Florida case, too,  

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