WASHINGTON – Making threatening comments in rap lyrics on Facebook is not sufficient cause to determine that a real threat exists and sentencing someone to prison, the U.S. Supreme Court said Monday in its first ruling regarding freedom of expression on the social networks.
In its ruling, the high court referred to the conduct of Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man who used Facebook to post rap songs containing death threats against his estranged wife, as well as remarks concerning his desire to shoot or injure former work colleagues, children and law enforcement officers.
In a 7-2 vote, the Court’s magistrates threw out Elonis’s conviction, stating that song lyrics are “fictional” and are not intended to represent real threats.
The justices said that the comments of the defendant were protected under the First Amendment, which defends the right to information and freedom of expression.
However, in the high court’s ruling, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the judges did not specify whether Elonis’s right to freedom of expression was violated when he was originally convicted and sentenced to prison.
The judges said only that the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence to prove that Elonis really did intend to carry out the threats contained in his rap songs and, therefore, that his behavior constituted a crime.
One of the comments Elonis made about his wife was that “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”
Elonis, who used the pseudonym “Tone Dougie,” had been charged under the federal law prohibiting interstate communications containing “any threat to injure the person of another.” He was sentenced to almost four years in federal prison and was released last year.
Although Elonis claimed that he never intended to carry out his threats, the government said that no matter what he intended, if his comments provoked enough fear and anxiety to make a reasonable person feel threatened, that was enough to prosecute it as a crime.
Elonis, in turn, said that the rap lyrics were a means of therapy for him to deal with the breakup of his marriage and losing his job at an amusement park.
The case had been closely followed by First Amendment advocates, given that it was the first to be heard by the high court that might help to establish the line separating bona fide online threats from freedom of expression.