The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday threw out the conviction of a Pennsylvania man found guilty of making threatening statements on Facebook to his estranged wife, law enforcement officers and others.
The court ruled 8-1 in favor of Anthony Elonis, who served prison time for posting a series of statements on the social media site in 2010 after his wife left him.
Elonis’ Facebook posts, written in the form of rap lyrics, talked about killing his wife, knifing an female FBI agent and shooting schoolchildren. After a court granted his wife a protective order against him, Elonis posted: “Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
The case touched upon the rise of social media and how people use it to express strongly held feelings. But the legal question decided by the court was that Elonis needed to be aware of the threatening nature of his communication in order to be convicted. Lower courts had said he could be culpable regardless of whether he believed his messages could be viewed as threatening.
“Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendants mental state,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote of behalf of the court.
Justice Clarence Thomas was the only member of the court who would have upheld the conviction. He criticized the court’s reasoning, saying it “throws everyone from appellate judges to everyday Facebook users into a state of uncertainty.”
Justice Samuel Alito partially disagreed with the outcome, saying he agreed that Elonis should win but not on the court’s legal reasoning.
Elonis was convicted of violating a federal law that outlaws sending a threatening communication and was sentenced to 44 months in prison.
The case is Elonis v. USA, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-983.