The Supreme Court will hear a case in which online threats, such as language that could be posted on Facebook or Twitter, etc., and their consequences (or lack there of) will be considered for protection under the First Amendment or not. That's right, there's someone out there who is fighting for his right to use his Facebook page as a place to 'express' himself, specifically his desires to murder his wife in gruesome and frightening language. To give you a sense of what his creative 'expression' looks like, here is a status update he posted about his ex-wife:
“There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die bitch, so I can bust this nut all over your corpse from atop your shallow grave. I used to be a nice guy but then you became a slut. Guess it's not your fault you like your daddy raped you.(...)”
OK. So, Anthony Elonis is claiming that his posting is consistent with many rap lyrics that he is emulating and reproducing, as a therapeutic way for him to express his frustration at his ex-wife. And local elementary schools. And the FBI agent who visited him to investigate his earlier threats.
The “reasonable person standard' is a commonly used one by the court, whereby something that requires subjective assessment is held to a guideline set at what a 'reasonable' (i.e. average) person would think. Not surprisingly, most reasonable people would find Elonis' posts serious and threatening, so he is contesting this standard, claiming that a reasonable person would of course find his posts threatening! That's part of his craft and testimony to his spirit! Elonis condemns himself in his effort to have the court set aside this standard, reasoning that anyone who knows him would know he was not being serious and he should be measured against himself; that is, the court should decide if this language is considered a serious threat given what they know about Elonis. Which is nothing, amirite?
Elonis and others of his ilk who take to the internet to express their murderous rage-filled thoughts and feelings by lobbing horrible and clear threats towards others seem to be pretty confused, and downright miffed that their words could be misinterpreted. In a terrific flouting of logic and basic respect for common sense, their argument is that of course someone who doesn't know them would be inclined to take seriously their threatening displays of bullshit-bravado. And yet they are posting publicly, so that in essence all sorts of strangers can and do read this stuff, and react logically and sensibly by identifying these threats as serious and damaging.
As Jessica Valenti points out, the fact that the internet offers a shroud of anonymity as well as vast reach is precisely what makes internet threats so scary. Especially when you don't know the person, you have no measure for whether or not the insane stuff they are saying is to be taken seriously or not, making the threat that much more threatening. As Jay Smooth helpfully points out in his eloquent deconstruction of 'no homo', everyone uses hyperbole or sarcasm or boasting to communicate with others, yet it is terribly important to remember that your friends who understand your sense of humor or who can watch your face and body language as you talk have a few markers for interpreting your words. But strangers do not, and posting to the internet is essentially posting to an audience full of strangers who don't know where you're coming from, and as such need you to abstain from saying things that by most reasonable people, sounds like serious threats to commit horrific violence.
In light of the Elliot Rodgers of the world, how are we supposed to determine which threats are to be taken seriously and which aren't when the language is pretty clear and we don't have any interpretive cues that would come from knowing someone familiarly? How often do we want to look back at a trail of promises of violence and lament not taking it seriously and perhaps preventing untold damage? It is our deep hope that SCOTUS will rule that internet threats are serious and not protected by the First Amendment, and in addition to that, there are some guidelines that we should all choose to follow. Perhaps the logical thing to do would be to agree that in spaces where your audience doesn't know who you are, you don't get to threaten violence or harm against other people. Period. And moreover, if you are so upset that you are being denied the right to threaten horrific violence on another person, maybe take a step back and reevaluate what you are fighting for, and why. What you might come around to is the realization that what you're fighting for is your right to rage out on others, which sorry, not a right that you have. Not protected by the First Amendment, not condoned by reasonable persons, not gonna pass under the guise of 'personal expression'.
The misogyny delivered via-online threat is kind of a thing. A thing that happens a lot. A lot to women, not so much to men. We at PARC have even been inducted into this ignominious space where women who call out and protest misogynistic violence receive threats of misogynistic violence. In our case it was through Facebook, which provided little to no adequate means for communicating with the organization for support over threatening content. We were shocked, and then we weren’t. Cause you know, be quiet and stop complaining about virtual harassment you hyper-sensitive feminist crazies! I mean, amiright? There is a theme here, teased out by several writers and bloggers, and it is one of gender. As many have pointed out, lots of public figures get vitriolic responses from their publics, and to some extent this is expected and tolerated. However, it seems that when men get push backs from dissenters online, rarely are they threatened with rape or violence. And you'll be surprised to read this, but weirdly enough when women get negative feedback it appears particularly focused around threats of rape and violence. Funny that! It's almost like virtual life imitates real life. Weird. As writer John Scalzi points out, there is a different quality, tone, and timbre, to the negative responses women get, one of broad and categorical hatred and violence. It's a tone that comes from the voices of those who feel threatened and resentful of women's voices, opinions, and rights, and couch their agenda in terms of personal freedoms. What about the very real infringement on safety and security that victims of violent threats are subject too? How is this something we're even debating? Freedom of speech does not give you the right to affect how someone else lives their life constrained by ambiguous threats to their safety, and common sense dictates that you understand the internet to be akin to a large hall of people, some of whom you know, most of whom you don't, to whom you would only say unambiguous things that you can adequately defend.
The case is Elonis v. United States, 13-983. Increasingly, if you are a woman voicing your thoughts and opinions online, you'll want to know your rights when it comes to online threats.