Monday, December 1, 2014

The Supreme Court Tackles Threats on Facebook

When the Supreme Court comes face to face Monday with a free speech case involving threats made on Facebook, Paulette Sullivan Moore and Francis Schmidt will have decidedly different reactions.
Sullivan hears regularly from women who are harassed and threatened online. A licensed professional had to change her name and take a lower-paying job. An Arizona woman moved nine times in 18 months and changed jobs four times. An Illinois woman confronted Facebook images of herself, her house and children with the caption, "You think you can hide from me?"
"What we know about abusers is that when they can't get physical access to the person they were abusing, they start using other methods," says Sullivan, vice president of public policy for the National Network to End Domestic Violence.
Schmidt was suspended from his job as an art and animation professor at a New Jersey college after posting on Google+ a photo of his 7-year-old daughter with a T-shirt that read, "I will take what is mine with fire and blood." The phrase, well-known to Game of Thrones fans, was interpreted by school officials as a threatened school shooting.
"Our school is the laughingstock of academia because of this," Schmidt says. "If you look up my name on the Internet, I think the third hit is something about school shootings."
Those are the two sides of the debate in the case of Anthony Elonis, whose threats were more intense than Schmidt's alleged threats, though perhaps no more intentional.
Upset at the breakup of his marriage, the 27-year-old Pennsylvania man repeatedly posted threatening remarks not only about his wife, but also about his former workplace, a kindergarten class, local police and FBI agents. Eventually, he was convicted on four federal counts of transmitting threats across state lines and sentenced to 44 months in prison.
The question for the justices: Is it enough that Elonis' targets felt threatened, as two lower federal courts ruled? Or must a jury decide that he intended to instill fear or inflict physical harm?
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