The Supreme Court on Monday delivered a narrow ruling in a case concerning threats made on social media, dodging the larger questions about the First Amendment implications of online speech. In a 7-2 vote, the court ruled threats made online can't land someone in prison merely if a "reasonable person" -- a common legal standard -- takes them seriously.
The case, Elonis v. United States, has been closely watched by free speech advocates and victims' rights groups. A broad ruling that detailed how the First Amendment does or doesn't protect online speech also would have had implications for higher education, where administrators and faculty members regularly grapple with how -- or if -- to control student behavior on social media. Instead, the court disagreed with the circuit court's interpretation of federal law that makes it illegal to threaten someone using "interstate communication" -- in other words, the Internet.
"Given the disposition here, it is unnecessary to consider any First Amendment issues," Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote in the opinion.
Anthony D. Elonis, the plaintiff in the case, was sentenced to 44 months in prison after posting threats aimed at his ex-wife, co-workers and others on Facebook. The Supreme Court reversed that conviction, sending the case back to the lower court.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, in his dissent, said the ruling will create more confusion about how to determine whether a post on social media constitutes a threat. "This failure to decide throws everyone from appellate judges to everyday Facebook users into a state of uncertainty," he wrote.