U.S. Supreme Court Finds Facebook Rants Not “Threats” Without Author Intent

By June 27, 2015 Michelle Todd, News No Comments

In Elonis v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a criminal conviction for making threats on Facebook.

The Court remanded the case to the trial court after holding that the trial court erroneously convicted the man based on a “reasonableness” standard but without proof of criminal “intent.” While not a civil case, the Court’s ruling has broad potential applicability to school employment and student matters.

The case arose after Elonis developed an online persona to post violent, graphic rap lyrics to Facebook about:  security at his workplace; his soon-to-be ex-wife, including weapons and a diagram of her house; and using explosives on law enforcement officials and shooting a gun at a nearby elementary school.

He posted “disclaimers” that his posts were therapeutic venting. Elonis was convicted after a trial based on a reasonableness standard, meaning the trial court found his comments on Facebook were considered threats if a reasonable person perceived he or she would come to harm.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, held that the reasonable-person standard is insufficient to convict a person for making violent Facebook comments, and that what matters is what the sender or poster means by his comments.

Similar situations occasionally arise within the school community. Consider Burge v. Colton School District, an Oregon case in the Ninth Circuit (which does not govern Illinois). In Burge, the court held that a student’s Facebook rant about his teacher was protected free speech and not a true threat of violence because the student did not intend to threaten the teacher.

This case arose after a student posted to Facebook that he wanted his teacher fired because she was “just a b*tch” and “she needs to be shot.” The principal questioned the student and briefly suspended him but did not call the police, further investigate, or remove him from this teacher’s class.

Contact Michelle Todd with your social media inquiries.

Sign up for our monthly newsletter for the latest school law news. Subscribe