Anthony Elonis’s Conviction Overturned: Are Online Threats Now Fair Game?

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Should all online threats lead to time in prison? According to the Supreme Court, simply reporting a threat posted by someone on the internet is no longer enough to put them in jail, as the Supreme Court just overturned the 2011 conviction of Anthony Elonis. A Pennsylvania native, Elonis was sentenced to jail after posting multiple threats toward his wife, co-workers, and elementary schools in the form of lyrics on Facebook. He claimed to use these posts as therapeutic methods to cope with his depression. However, due to their violent nature, he was convicted for violating a federal threat statute. Elonis appealed his conviction to the Supreme Court, arguing that the government should have been required to prove he truly had an intent to act on these threats before sentencing him to a 44 month term in jail. That argument convinced the Supreme Court–but what does it mean for online communication moving forward?

With this ruling, the Supreme Court says courts must consider the defendant’s state of mind and whether he intended to actually do wrong. This simply means that there must be some proof that the defendant intended to follow through on what he was posting. The court gave a 7-2 opinion but did not set a clear standard for what constitutes this intent to act out these threats. There are questions of whether this will potentially create uncertainties during future trials. In fact, Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. believe that this opinion is more confusing than enlightening. Thomas wrote, “This failure to decide throws everyone from appellate judges to everyday Facebook users into a state of uncertainty.”

This is a very tricky case with two sides to it. Something that is posted online may very well be taken out of context, but there is also a good chance that someone who has intent to cause harm to others will not be seen as guilty in a courtroom due to the lack of proof. Michele M. Garcia, director of the Stalker Resource Centerstated,

This decision fails to recognize that victims of stalking experience fear regardless of the offender’s intent. If what constitutes a threat is not clearly defined, our concern is that this ruling provides enormous space for stalkers and abusers to act.

Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, described the internet as “the crime scene of the 21st century. Kim Gandy, president of the National Network to End Domestic Violence, stated,

Threats play a central role in domestic abuse and is a core tactic that many abusers employ, regardless of whether the abuser intended to threaten or only intended to vent or to make a joke.

I can’t help but wonder if this decision will help people who do plan to harm others avoid prison?  There is a big concern that this will let internet abusers get around the law by writing hateful posts that “technically” are not threats but are still frightening to others. This decision may make it much more difficult to prosecute those whose posts are a precursor to violence that is going to take place. Only time will tell if this decision by the Supreme Court was beneficial or harmful for those dealing with internet threats.

Taelor Bentley
Taelor is a member of the Hampton University Class of 2017 and was a Law Street Media Fellow for the Summer of 2015. Contact Taelor at



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