Free Speech On The Internet Is Not Absolute

The Supreme Court is deciding how the First Amendment applies to threats made online.

Any law professor will tell students that free speech and other rights guaranteed in the nation’s Bill of Rights are enjoyed by each person only so far as they do not interfere with the rights of others. The classic example of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater not being protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech still rings true. For the past 40 years in particular, the Supreme Court has walked a fine line of what is and what is not protected free speech. For example, threats to harm another person are not protected forms of free speech, but distinguishing “political hyperbole” or “unpleasantly sharp attacks,” which are protected forms of free speech, from such threats is not always easily determined.

The freedom of speech issue recently came into question again, when Anthony Elonis posted violent, threatening messages on his Facebook account, directed at his estranged wife. When questioned by authorities, Elonis claimed his words, fashioned after the lyrics of his favorite rap artists, were protected under his right to free speech, according to Fox News.

One such post read: “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.”

The case recently drew the attention of free speech advocates, who claim comments made in social media posts are often made in the heat of the moment without any intention to act on the thoughts represented in the user’s words. However, the central issue is whether a reasonable person targeted with such ravings would truly regard them as a menacing threat.

Domestic abuse victims, according to a brief filed by the National Network to End Domestic Violence, ”have experienced real-life terror caused by increasingly graphic and public posts to Facebook and other social media sites — terror that is exacerbated precisely because abusers now harness the power of technology, enabling them to reach their victims’ everyday lives at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen.”

In a technologically driven society, the Supreme Court faces the challenge of interpreting established laws in regard to these new technologies, especially in regard to how they relate to free speech. The Boston Globe reports that only last term, the Supreme Court decided First Amendment issues relating to mobile phone privacy, software patents, and cloud-based internet streaming video.

How the Supreme Court decides this case may determine the future of social media and networking for years to come. For more on the Elonis free speech case, click here.