The United States' Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether people who post violent or threatening language on Facebook and other internet forums must show intent to follow through on their threats in order to be prosecuted.
Anthony D Elonis, of Pennsylvania, was sentenced to nearly four years in prison for the ominous photos and violent rants he made against former co-workers, law enforcement officials and his estranged wife.
Elonis said his postings, which included the lyrics of songs by the rapper Eminem, were free speech and not specific threats to harm anyone. The justices will consider the case next fall.
The announcement came on a busy day at the court, with justices scheduled to complete their term in two weeks. They also:
❏ Ruled 5 to 4 that a man who purchased a gun for his uncle because he thought he could get a discount violated a federal law against straw purchases of weapons. Justice Elena Kagan said ruling for Bruce Abramski, of Virginia, a former police officer, would virtually repeal the federal law outlawing straw purchases.
❏ Dealt a double blow to the government of Argentina. The justices turned down Argentina's appeal of a lower court ruling that ordered it to pay US$1.3 billion to hedge funds that hold some of its bonds. The court then ruled 7-to-1 in a separate case that US courts can force banks to reveal where the country's assets are held around the world.
❏ Said that a group may challenge a state's law against making "false statements" during a political campaign. Lower courts had said the anti-abortion group Susan B Anthony List did not have standing to challenge the Ohio law because it has not been prosecuted.
But the court held unanimously that just the threat of being prosecuted over disputed speech was enough to allow the group to challenge the constitutionality of the statute.
❏ Declined to review an appeals court's decision that a suburban Milwaukee school district had erred by holding high school graduation ceremonies in a local church, where students and their families were surrounded by religious artefacts and messages.
The court gave no reason for not accepting the case, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said the court should have heard the dispute. They said the lower court's decision was at odds with some of the reasoning in the court's recent decision allowing sectarian prayers at legislative meetings.
The Facebook case calls on the court to deal with a new frontier in how to deal with threats posted on social media sites. Lower courts are divided over what must be shown to charge those such as Elonis, and whether there must be evidence that he planned to act on his threats before prosecution.
Elonis was 27, estranged from his wife and just fired from his job at an amusement park when he posted violent images and threatening language on his Facebook page. One was a photo of him at the park in a Halloween costume and holding a toy knife to a co-worker's throat. "I wish," he wrote.
He also mimicked a comedy troupe's routine about what constituted a threat.
"Did you know that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?" Elonis wrote. "Now it was OK for me to say it right then because I was just telling you that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife."
Elonis' petition to the court said: "Although the language was - as with popular rap songs addressing the same themes - sometimes violent, petitioner posted explicit disclaimers in his profile explaining that his posts were 'fictitious lyrics,' and he was 'only exercising [his] constitutional right to freedom of speech.' "
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli told the court there was no reason to accept the case. He said lower courts had correctly decided that a reasonable person would have found the rants - some of them about his wife even more explicit - real threats.