Supreme Court issues decision in Facebook threats case

The Supreme Court issued a decision today in a case we discussed back in December regarding a man convicted for making threatening statements on Facebook. To recap, the case involved Pennsylvania man Anthony Elonis, who was arrested and charged with violating 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) for making threatening and violent statements in the form of rap lyrics on the social media site. The statute makes it a crime to threaten to injure another using avenues of interstate commerce.

Elonis was convicted and appealed. He argued that the standard the trial court applied when evaluating his conduct under this statute was incorrect. The lower court had instructed the jury to use a reasonable person (negligence) standard, which meant that if a reasonable person reading Elonis' posts would believe that they were intended as threats he must be convicted. Elonis claims that the correct standard would have been a subjective one and that the court should have determined whether he personally had the intent to threaten when he made those posts. Elonis cited First Amendment protections in support of his arguments.

As we discussed, the Court could have decided the case under these First Amendment grounds or by ruling on the statute itself. In a 7-2 opinion penned by Chief Justice Roberts,the Court utilized the latter method and sidestepped the First Amendment issue altogether.  The Court found that while 18 U.S.C. 875(c) does not specify a a culpable mental state, it does require more than negligence, which is what the trial court used to convict Elonis. The Court held that "Section 875(c)’s mental state requirement is satisfied if the defendant transmits a communication for the purpose of issuing a threat or with knowledge that the communication will be viewed as a threat." The Court did not address whether recklessness would be an acceptable mental state, but found that the negligence standard employed in this case was not sufficient.

In reaching this decision, the Court emphasized the importance of criminal intent in finding a person guilty of a crime and cited significant precedent to this effect, observing that, "the 'general rule' is that a guilty mind is 'a necessary element in the indictment and proof of every crime.'" The Court noted that even statutes that are silent as to mens rea are generally interpreted to require criminal intent and that the statute in question should be as well. Because the Court found that the statute included such a requirement, it did not have to rule on the First Amendment question.

Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, joined in the opinion. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Thomas dissented.

Photo credit: Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.