What if you got a message on your Facebook account from someone you knew was angry with you that read, “There’s one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya.” You might be a bit worried, right?
What if that person continued to write things like, “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.” And they followed up with musings about putting your “head on a stick” and making a name for themselves with “the most heinous school shooting ever imagined.”
Would the phrase, “Hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class,” prompt you to pick up the phone and alert the police? I sure hope so.
Well, thanks to a new ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, there may be no grounds to arrest someone who writes such terrifying threats.
What has happened to our common sense?
The case stems from actions by Anthony Elonis of Bucks County, Pa., after his estranged wife got a restraining order to keep him away from her and their two children. Elonis was ordered not to post threatening messages about his wife, but he ignored the order.
About a week later he wrote on Facebook, “Fold up your protective order and put (it) in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”
He also wrote about slitting the throat of the female FBI agent who came to investigate his threat against school children.
Elonis, then 29, would tell a judge he didn’t mean to frighten anyone. He insisted his words weren’t true threats but therapeutic rap lyrics he composed during a rough period of his life.
A jury ultimately convicted him under a federal law that makes it a crime to communicate any threat to injure another person. Elonis was sentenced to nearly four years. He appealed, and his case advanced to the Supreme Court.
In handing down its ruling, the Supreme Court vacated Elonis’ conviction. The justices’ majority opinion declared that the point of siding with the defendant had nothing to do with his claim of freedom of speech but, rather, the prosecutor’s failure to prove the defendant’s intent at the time he wrote those brutally violent taunts.
Really? The justice system is supposed to prove what was on the mind of someone — their intent — when they wrote terroristic messages?
As an investigative reporter for many years, I’ve been on the receiving end of some of the most hateful online messages you can imagine. Those who question my motives or impugn my honesty roll off my back.
But some contain violently sexual threats and brutal ways to kill or maim me, including this most memorable one as I was covering a controversial criminal trial: “My friend and I will push you down outside the court. While she scrubs your face with steel wool, I will scoop out your eyes with a spoon.”
The Los Angeles Police Department’s Computer Crimes Unit got involved once, the FBI on another occasion. Both ultimately told me there was nothing they could do to make the intimidating writers stop.
For me, it comes with the professional territory, but not so for the countless victims of domestic abuse and other crimes who are virtually paralyzed by these terrifying threats. That the nation’s highest court now dismisses their abject fear by ignoring the long-standing “reasonable person standard” — the idea that any reasonable person would find such words threatening — in favor of “proof of intent” sends a shiver down my spine.
Anti-stalking statutes nationwide rely on the reasonable person standard. Now that guideline is in doubt, and it is a sure bet that prosecutors will be more reluctant to bring charges against these cyber terrorists.
It is way past time for Congress and/or state legislatures to pass meaningful cyber-threat laws. Vulnerable citizens should not have to live in fear. We condemn threatening hate speech on the street. Why not on the Internet?
If cyber bullies realize there is jail time attached to their hate-filled actions, they may think twice before hitting the “send” button. These ubiquitous messages of hate are not only clear-cut verbal assaults but they can be early warning signs from disturbed criminals-in-waiting.
Must we wait until they explode in actual physical violence before the system allows them to be punished? Not fair.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.