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SCOTUS ruling on Facebook threats leaves questions about free speech on social media




A man checks facebook on his smartphone while waiting for a train in a metro station in Washington, DC, on May 9, 2012.
A man checks facebook on his smartphone while waiting for a train in a metro station in Washington, DC, on May 9, 2012.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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The highest court in the U.S. ruled Monday that it’s not enough to consider something posted on social media a “true threat” simply because a reasonable person would consider it threatening.

The ruling revolves around the case of a Pennsylvania man convicted of threatening his estranged wife and an FBI agent on Facebook. At issue, the question of whether a reasonable person would consider Elonis’ threats to be real. In a 7-2 vote, the High Court struck down the conviction, saying that in order to be guilty of threatening someone, there needs to be proof that the person making the threats knew their statements would be considered threats, and that it’s not enough to simply argue that the person’s statements were intended as threats.

The Supreme Court did not, however, rule on the larger First Amendment aspect of the case as it pertains to the line between free speech and threats on social media. They simply focused on the interpretation of the criminal statutes as it applies to making threats. Because of this, questions still remain about what the standard for free speech on social media should be.

What do you think of this ruling? Where do you think the line is between free speech and threats on social media? Does this ruling set a precedent for other cases involving threats on social media or was it too narrow?

Guests:

Eugene Volokh, professor at the UCLA School of Law and an expert on the First Amendment

Erwin Chemerinsky, founding dean and distinguished professor of law at the UC Irvine School of Law.