The case centers on Anthony Elonis, who posted on Facebook about his ex-wife and other people in a way that resulted in a 44-month prison sentence. Elonis has almost completed his sentence, but he wants the arrest taken off his record.
“There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you,” read a post about his ex-wife. “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”
The National Center for Victims of Crime submitted an amicus brief in support of Elonis’ prison sentence. Jeffrey Dion, deputy executive director of the center, said the group wants to protect victims of stalking and domestic violence.
“The court could issue a ruling in this case that could basically invalidate stalking laws in over half the states,” Dion said.
Dion said he feels social media is complicated because context can be confusing. But he said social media threats shouldn’t be evaluated differently than threats made in person or in writing.
“The fact that it is social media or it is online doesn’t really change the standard of what it is that the person is saying,” he said.
The Yik Yak threat at UNC, Dion said, should be considered a true threat.
“That example (similar) to your bomb threat is the same thing as someone yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, and that’s not protected speech,” he said. “Why? Because in the mad rush to get out, people could be injured, people could be trampled.”
Conversely, the Student Press Law Center submitted a brief in the case supporting Elonis’ right to speak freely on social media.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said if the decision calling Elonis’ posts “true threats” is upheld, it could create situations where law enforcement misunderstands social media and misuses criminal justice resources.
“If we start criminalizing every joke about violence, we are going to have an entire generation of convicted felons,” he said.
LoMonte said he supports finding a mechanism to discourage people from posting false threats.
“There is no evidence that anyone ever acts on these ridiculous remarks, so to treat each one of them as if it is a realistic threat is a really questionable use of our resources,” LoMonte said.
Junior Sarah Morton said she feels freshman Daniel Fischbeck , who was arrested in connection with the threatening Yik Yak post, should face some disciplinary action for the threat.
“The fact that it was a threat complicates things, and I’m not really sure where the line is drawn,” she said. “I didn’t even know that you could be arrested for something you posted on the Internet, but I feel like if the student that posted that yak realized the severity, I don’t think he would have ever sent it out.”