Are Online Threats a Crime or Free Speech?

A Pennsylvania man will have his criminal appeal heard by the Supreme Court of the United States later this term. The man received a four-year prison sentence for making threats against his wife, former co-workers, and law enforcement agents on the popular social media site Facebook.

He said of his wife, “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.” He also stated regarding an agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigations who visited him, “Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the (woman) ghost. Pull my knife, flick my wrist and slit her throat.”

The appellant argues that he was simply depressed and ranting on the internet, and that he never meant them as actual threats that he would carry out. He also argues that his right to free speech under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States protects his right to say such things on Facebook.

Issues Before the Court

While residents of the United States are guaranteed the right to free speech, the Court has long held that true threats of harm do not constitute protected speech. The next question is when online comments will actually be considered threatening under the federal statute against threats.

The appellant argues that, in order to convict him, the court should have found that he subjectively meant his comments to be threats. However, others argue that a conviction only requires an objective finding that a reasonable person would find the language to be threatening. The Supreme Court will decide whether a subjective or objective standard must be used in interpreting this statute.

In this case, the estranged wife testified that the Facebook comments made her afraid for her life. However, the appellant claims that he never meant any of what he said to be threatening. No matter what the Supreme Court decides, this decision will likely play a large role in the future charging and convictions of people who post potentially threatening material online. With the growing role of Internet communications and online social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, online comments will likely be the focus of a growing number of criminal cases. We will keep an eye on the progress of this case and post updates here.

Both federal and state laws are constantly changing and evolving. Therefore, cases involving criminal charges may need to be handled differently than in the past. An experienced criminal defense lawyer will be fully up to date on all new changes in the law and will know how to apply all new changes to each individual case. Steven Goldman is a highly skilled criminal defense lawyer who is familiar with the laws of the state of Illinois and of the United States. No matter what type of criminal case you are facing, do not hesitate to contact Goldman & Associates for help today.

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