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Facts and Case Summary - Elonis v. U.S.

Read the facts of the case and follow its path to the Supreme Court.

Facts

Anthony Elonis was arrested on December 8, 2010 and charged with five counts of violating a federal anti-threat statute, 18 U.S.C. § 875(c).  Specifically, he was charged with threatening his ex-wife, co-workers, a kindergarten class, the local police, and an FBI agent.

Elonis had posted statements on his Facebook page that appeared to threaten his ex-wife and other people in his life.  Prior to the postings, his wife and family had left him and he had lost his job at an amusement park. Shortly after this chain of events, Elonis posted several statements on his Facebook page that were interpreted as threats.

At his trial, Elonis asked the court to dismiss the charges, stating that his Facebook comments were not true threats.  He argued that he was an aspiring rap artist and that his comments were merely a form of artistic expression and a therapeutic release to help him deal with the events in his life.  

In an apparent attempt to underscore that his comments should not be taken seriously, he posted links to YouTube videos that he parodied, and noted that a popular rap artist often uses similar language in his lyrics.  For several of his comments, he also posted a disclaimer stating: “This is not a threat.” 

Despite the fact that his ex-wife, an FBI agent, and others viewing his comments might have perceived his statements as threats, Elonis argued that he could not be convicted of making a threat because he did not intend to threaten anyone with his postings. In other words, he claimed that he didn’t mean what he said in a literal sense. In legal terms, he said that he did not have a subjective intent to threaten anyone. 

The trial court denied his motion to dismiss the case.  The court held that the proper legal test for determining whether someone made a threat is an objective one:  whether reasonable people hearing the comment would perceive it to be a threat.  Elonis was convicted of four of the five counts.  He was sentenced to 44 months imprisonment, and three years of supervised release.[1]  He appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which affirmed his conviction.  The U.S. Supreme Court, granted certiorari (agreed to hear the case).  Oral arguments were heard on Monday, December 1, 2014.  A decision is expected by June 2015.

[1] Please Note:  After the trial, Elonis, through his lawyers, filed post-trial motions with the trial court in an attempt to overturn the conviction.  These attempts also were unsuccessful.

The First Amendment Provides That 

“Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech [.]”

Applicable Law

It is a federal crime to “transmit [ ] in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing…any threat to injure the person of another, 18 U.S.C. § 875(c).  Numerous states have adopted similar statutes. 

Procedure

Lower Court 1:  U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

Lower Court Ruling 1:  The U.S. District Court rejected Elonis’ argument that a subjective (i.e., individual) intent to threaten is required to secure a conviction under the federal anti-threat statute.

Lower Court 2:  U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

Lower Court Ruling 2:  The Court of Appeals affirmed the U.S. District Court.  It held that a reasonable person (i.e., objective) standard is the correct legal test for determining whether Elonis could be convicted of communicating a threat under federal law.

Issue Before the U.S. Supreme Court

Does a conviction of threatening another person under federal anti-threat statute18 U.S.C. § 875(c) require proof that the defendant meant what he said in a literal sense?

Status

Oral Arguments:  Heard at the Supreme Court of the United States on Monday, December 1, 2014.

Judgment

Reversed and remanded, 8-1, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts on June 1, 2015. Justice Alito filed an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion.`