The Supreme Court on Monday inched a little bit closer to answering a major free-speech question: how to draw the line between real threats of violence and angry diatribes protected by the First Amendment.
In an 8-1 ruling, the Court threw out the conviction of a Pennsylvania man who wrote violent, obscene Facebook posts about killing his wife, his coworkers, FBI agents, and even kindergartners. But the Court did not set a clear standard for future cases involving online threats, and some of the justices complained that the ruling would only make the legal landscape more complicated.
"Our job is to decide questions, not create them," Justice Clarence Thomas said in a dissenting opinion.
The Court's ruling will make it harder to prosecute people for their social-media messages—but it's not clear what, exactly, prosecutors will have to prove.
Elonis v. United States has been one of the most highly anticipated cases of the term, in large part because legal experts saw in it potentially profound First Amendment implications. But the Court stayed far away from any constitutional issues in Monday's ruling, focusing instead on the legal standards applied in Anthony Elonis's trial.
Elonis's legal troubles started after his wife left him in 2010. He started posting angry, violent messages about killing her. "I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts," he wrote in one post. Some of his messages took the form of song lyrics—for example, the one about a female FBI agent investigating his case: "Leave her bleedin' from her jugular in the arms of her partner."