The Supreme Court today threw out the conviction of Anthony Elonis of Pennsylvania for threatening his estranged wife and an FBI agent in Facebook posts. Elonis was sentenced to 44 months in prison for posting words like this about his wife: “There’s one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya, and I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess.” Elonis, who worked at an amusement park in Allentown, Pa., contended that he was exercising his First Amendment free speech rights, although today’s 7-to-2 ruling did not discuss First Amendment issues.
Elonis’ trial judge told jurors they could convict him if a reasonable person would would foresee that his statements would be interpreted as a threat, but Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court majority, said that was not enough. Elonis’ mental state–whether he intended his writings to be threats–should have been considered, Roberts said. Dissenting Justice Samuel Alito said the ruling
“is certain to cause confusion and serious problems” in similar cases. “Attorneys and judges need to know which mental state is required for conviction” under the law, Alito said. Dissenter Clarence Thomas agreed, saying that the majority’s failure to decide the mental state issue “throws everyone from appellate judges to everyday Facebook users into a state of uncertainty.”