On Facebook and Free Speech

Nancy Scola of the Washington Post breaks down the Supreme Court case Elonis v. the United States, a case that asks: are the violent ramblings of a person on Facebook protected storytelling or true threats?

Anthony Elonis is an amusement park worker and, according to evidence presented in a lower court, made “a habit of threatening his estranged wife and others in often lyrical yet quite violent Facebook posts.”

Before the Supreme Court, Elonis’ lawyer argued that his client wasn’t serious, that he was merely quoting rap lyrics and letting off steam.

One disturbing line of thought expressed in this piece is that violent language expressed online should be interpreted as just the idiotic musings of sarcastic teenagers. I think this ignores the real harassment many women and minorities face online.

In fact, Elonis’ estranged wife became fearful for her life and the lives of her children after reading the posts, according to Scola.

What’s most intriguing to me about this article is Scola’s discussion of context. What circumstances indicate to social media readers that a post is sarcastic? Should different legal criteria be applied to different social media platforms, given that each platform has it’s own conventions? Is discerning online context reliable enough to imprison someone?

Scola writes:

William McGeveran, an expert in technology and free speech who teaches at the University of Minnesota Law School, says: “The justices are fumbling with how you judge context in the space of people’s News Feeds. The true threat doctrine is from spoken language. It’s from mobs in the streets that are yelling. But you read an individual Facebook post from somebody, and you don’t click back to see their profile page, it’s shorn of context.”


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