Should the standards of what constitutes an actionable threat of physical violence be changed in the era of the internet and social media? Next week the Supreme Court will consider that question, which probes the tender intersection of the First Amendment, criminal law, and society’s interest in protecting people from impending harm.
For years the prevailing standard has been that “true threats” to harm another person are not protected free speech and can be punished under the criminal law. The issue raised by the Supreme Court case is whether prosecutors should be required to prove that the speaker had a “subjective intent” to threaten, as opposed to showing that an objective person would consider the statements to be threatening. A requirement of subjective intent obviously would be harder to prove.
In the Supreme Court case, the defendant created Facebook posts about his estranged wife, writing about “a thousand ways to kill you” and asking whether the protection from abuse order she received was “thick enough to stop a bullet.” His lawyers contend that the statements are simply “therapeutic efforts to address traumatic events” and references to the violent, misogynistic imagery of the defendant’s favorite rappers. The defendant also argues that other actions like the placement of an emoticon — a face with its tongue sticking out, purportedly to indicate “jest” — must be considered in assessing whether the speaker truly intends menacing behavior or is just blowing off steam.
I’m a big supporter of free speech, and exercises in line-drawing are always difficult, but I don’t see any need to revisit long-time legal standards just because the internet has been developed. Domestic abuse is a huge problem, and we need to protect the abused. If prosecutors are required to prove “subjective intent,” and the placement of emoticons or the couching of unambiguous threats of violence in the context of rap lyrics become viable defenses, the ability to protect the abused will be diminished. I don’t know of any real “therapy” that encourages disturbed people to make specific threats of violence, and I don’t buy the argument that standards of lawful behavior should be reduced simply because some anonymous people treat the internet as a kind of free-for-all zone.
Standards exist for a reason, and we shouldn’t be in a hurry to lower them. It’s not unfair to hold people whose behavior already has given rise to legitimate concern — like the defendant in the Supreme Court case who was the subject of a protection from abuse order — accountable for specific violent statements, on social media or otherwise.