After Tara Elonis persuaded a judge to issue a protective order against her estranged husband, Anthony, he said: “Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?” Anthony posted the message on his Facebook page in a prose style reminiscent of the violent, misogynistic lyrics of rap artists he admired, says the Washington Post. In its first test of the limits of free speech on social media, next week, the Supreme Court will consider whether, as a jury concluded, Elonis's postings constituted a “true threat” to his wife and others. The issue is whether Elonis should be prosecuted for what he says was simply blowing off steam, because what matters is not his intent but whether any reasonable person targeted in the rants would regard them as menacing warnings.
Parties on both sides of the groundbreaking case want the court to consider the unique qualities of social media. In this rapidly evolving realm of communication, only an emoticon may signal whether a writer is engaging in satire or black humor, exercising poetic license, or delivering the kind of grim warnings that have presaged school shootings and other acts of mass violence. Elonis, who has served prison time for his Facebook posts, says the court must look beyond incendiary content to discern the writer's intent. “Internet users may give vent to emotions on which they have no intention of acting, memorializing expressions of momentary anger or exasperation that once were communicated face-to-face among friends and dissipated harmlessly,” said a brief by the Student Press Law Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the writers organization PEN.