Graphic by Mesa Kennedy

How the Supreme Court Ruled in the Social Media Free Speech Case of 2015 and Why it Matters to You

Anthony D. Elonis posted on Facebook that he wanted to shoot up a kindergarten. His exact words were:

“That’s it, I’ve had about enough. I’m checking out and making a name for myself. Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined. And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class. The only question is . . . which one?” Facebook post by Elonis

Elonis also posted several threats targeting his ex wife and others, including threatening his ex wife with physical violence.

The Constitution of the United States of America holds a lot of power within the justice system. It contains the ideas that this country is built on. The very first amendment to the constitution regards the freedom of speech.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment to the United States Constitution

Because the constitution states that everyone has the right to freedom of speech, courts are very cautious when deciding when to restrict what people can say and where. There are some types of speech that the court has decided are not protected under the first amendment, including fighting words (Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire 315 U.S 568 [1942]), and threats.

These categories may seem pretty unambiguous, but that is rarely the case in a court room, especially when you are dealing with the first amendment.

Elonis was on trial for many posts to Facebook that had been interpreted as threatening speech, including many aimed at his estranged wife.

In this case the court ruled 8–1 that there was not enough proof that the threats were genuine and were intended to strike fear in others to convict Elonis, with only Justice Tomas disagreeing.

Ruling in Elonis v. United States, 13–983 U.S. 2015 (graphic by the New York Times)

Had this case been about speech that took place in person, Elonis probably would be in jail right now. Had Elonis said to his ex wife while walking past her on the street “Fold up your PFA (protection from abuse order) and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”, he probably would be in jail right now. But it was on the internet.


Why does this matter to the average internet user?

Until recently the internet has been a place of little to no regulation. Where anonymity is the default. Freedom of speech is absolutely vital to the health of the internet to function the way it does today. But on the other hand people feeling safe is important. Women especially can be targeted by speech that can be incredibly intimidating.

This ruling makes the standard for allowable speech on the internet higher than it is in person. It allows people to post more threatening things than they would be able to say in person.

On the other side, it lets people have more leeway on social media. Artists have more room under the first amendment to express themselves (in more violent ways maybe, but it is still expression) now that the supreme court has ruled that there is a higher standard for words written on social media.

Social media users should look at this ruling as a reminder that posts on social media are not above the law, but there may be a higher standard for what is acceptable speaking to another person. The supreme court left some ambiguity about what is allowable and what is not under the first amendment. What can be taken from this case is that there is now need for courts to be looking at social media and how the first amendment applies to the type of speech present there.