The Supreme Court takes on internet trolls
A Pennsylvania case of violent Facebook postings has made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Elonis vs. U.S. is the first case the court has heard regarding free speech and social media. The justices’ decision could ultimately define what constitutes a true threat online — the intention of the one doing the threatening, or the fear felt by the threatened.
Four years ago, Anthony Elonis was convicted to three years in prison for violent Facebook posts involving his ex-wife. She felt that she was being stalked and feared for her family’s lives, according to the case. Elonis argued that he never intended to carry out the murderous musings — they were merely artistic expressions, a way to vent his frustrations, he said.
The Supreme Court will likely be cautious in the arena of the First Amendment. Although Elonis’ posts are graphic and violent, he has some supporters, like the American Civil Liberties Union, which fights to preserve the constitutional rights of individuals. Regarding the case, the ACLU wrote, “a statute that proscribes speech without regard to the speaker's intended meaning runs the risk of punishing protected First Amendment expression simply because it is crudely or zealously expressed.”
If the Court decides that Elonis is in the wrong for posting those violent lyrics, it could change the internet as we know it. Trolls run rampant online — 25 percent of internet users have seen someone physically threatened, 19 percent have witnessed sexual harassment and 18 percent have seen someone stalked, according to a recent Pew survey. Of their most recent experience, 36 percent said that they knew the person harassing them as an offline acquaintance, friend, family member, ex or co-worker.
In that same survey, men and women overall reported harassment and physical threats at comparable rates, but young women were more likely to experience sexually harassed or stalking. What’s more, women were more likely to find their most recent harassment experience upsetting — 38 percent of women compared to 17 percent of men said that harassment was “very” or “extremely upsetting.”
If the Supreme Court rules against Elonis, the decision could empower those who fear for their safety online, no matter the intention of the one making the threat, but at the cost of the First Amendment rights of trolls.