Internet Threats—A Time Machine Reflection

To be convicted of threatening people, a defendant must intend to be threatening. Harkening to doubts expressed by Judge Sutton in his United States v. Jefferies dubitante opinion (covered by this blog in August 2012), the Supreme Court agreed that “[h]aving liability turn on whether a ‘reasonable person’ regards the communication as a threat—regardless of what the defendant thinks—‘reduces culpability on the all-important element of the crime to negligence.’” Elonis v. United States, No. 13-983, Slip Op. at 8 (June 1, 2015). Rejecting a negligence standard (and reversing the conviction), the Court left open the question of whether some degree of recklessness could meet the requisite scienter for conviction and did not address potential First Amendment arguments. Id. at 16-17.

          Both cases involved the liberal use of creative lyrics on social media accounts. The lyrics are included in the respective opinions (Judge Sutton describes Jefferies’ efforts as “part country, part rap, sometimes on key, and surely therapeutic”) and are worth review—particularly to lend insight on what can happen in a time of increasing use of social media and mobile access. Notably, “friends” or “followers” of the both defendants took the posts to law enforcement. Since the context of such posts will likely be instrumental in determining the mental state of future defendants, attorneys will need to understand content and access restrictions (if any) when addressing future cases.

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