01 June 2015

Law in Plain English: Elonis v. United States

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

SCOTUSblogElonis v. United States

Argument: Dec 1 2014 (Aud.)

Background: After being fired from his job, Anthony Elonis made several posts on Facebook threatening former co-workers, his wife (who had a protection from abuse order against him), and federal law enforcement officers (who had visited him earlier that day to ask about his previous posts) (click here to read some of Elonis's threats). At trial, Elonis was convicted under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) for "transmit[ing] in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injury the person of another ... " The Third Circuit affirmed, finding that Elonis's Facebook threats were not protected by the First Amendment if a reasonable person would regard the statements as threatening.

Issue: The questions before the Court are (1) whether, consistent with the First Amendment and Virginia v. Black, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) requires proof of the defendant's subjective intent to threaten, as required by the Ninth Circuit and the supreme courts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont; or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening, as held by other federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort; and (2) whether, as a matter of statutory interpretation, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) requires proof of the defendant's subjective intent to threaten.

Holding: In an 8-1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Third Circuit’s instruction, requiring only negligence with respect to the communication of a threat, is not sufficient to support a conviction under Section 875(c). Section 875(c)’s mental state requirement is satisfied if the defendant transmits a communication for the purpose of issuing a threat or with knowledge that the communication will be viewed as a threat.
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