By: Chris Warren
Almost everyone, including myself, has at some point said something they later regret. If it’s said on the internet, or later leaked onto the internet, then it has the potential to create an ocean of unintended consequences. YouTube alone is littered with career-ending remarks that are so jaw-dropping dumb, it makes one wonder: What path of insane reasoning did the speaker use to come to the conclusion that what they were saying was a good idea? Adding to the astonishment, many of these comments were made with the full knowledge they would be open to the public. It’s not a “what were you thinking?” moment, It’s an “are you even capable of thinking?” moment.
The story of Anthony Elonis might have been just another cautionary tale of how a guy let his mosquito brain overpower his alligator mouth; what makes it stand out is the small brain-big mouth combo pack is going all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The gist of the case is that Elonis was convicted of making threats of violence to others on his Facebook page. At least one of the comments was directed at…now get this…an FBI agent who was investigating his other threats. The particulars of the case are rather boring and lengthy as would be expected in a legal proceeding. I have read it so you don’t have to, and trust me when I say in addition to his legal trouble there is something really wrong going on inside Elonis’ head.
Elonis does not deny that he made the comments and the facts of the case are not in question. In simple terms, Elonis wants the Supreme Court to overturn his conviction because his remarks were made on line. His defense is that people talk trash on line all the time and what is said there should not be taken seriously. He therefore considers his statements, which include musing about shooting up a kindergarten class, “free speech”.
To be clear, this is not about one coarsely-worded rant or a volley of argumentative one-upmanship of the kind that pops up on Facebook and Twitter millions of times a day. There were numerous threats of graphic violence made over a long period of time and directed at more than one individual, and Elonis has a history of inappropriate behavior in his off line life. Among other things, he was fired from his job for making sexual advances towards an underage female coworker. Legal issues aside, Anthony Elonis is at minimum a creepy pervert whom I would not allow anywhere near any woman I care about.
The failure is not in the legal system, but in Elonis’ screwed up sense of his “rights” and a general breakdown of civility enabled by the internet. It way too easy to be abusive while hiding behind a keyboard. Being mean to people you can’t see is an easy trap to fall into even for those who are normally in control of themselves. Many times I wisely re-worded a message because it sounded unnecessarily harsh; and a few times I later wished I had more carefully edited myself.
The Supreme Court blew it by agreeing to hear this case because by doing so they acknowledge that Elonis might be right. No doubt the lame “it was on the internet so it doesn’t count” defense was cooked up by Elonis’ attorneys. In a way I do not blame the lawyers. They have a duty to represent their client and can only work with what they are given. But wow, is this such a tough call that we have to bring in the Supreme Court to deal with it? The defense’s theory is that there should be a different benchmark of acceptability for on line speech than there is for any other medium; this is known as the subjective standard. He expects the Court to affirm that threatening someone with violence is ok as long as it’s done on line.
Elonis is a criminal with a proclivity towards violence and his conviction should stand. Threatening an FBI agent and giving a step-by-step description of how you want to whack your ex goes well beyond free speech. I don’t understand why the Supremes think there is a possibility the lower courts got it wrong and Elonis was simply pursuing his First Amendment rights. If the Court rules in favor of the defense, it sets up a precedent for every nutjob and hate group in the land to go on line and threaten whoever they want under the protective umbrella of free speech with no legal recourse for the intended victim.
What is it about sitting in front of a computer that turns otherwise considerate people into ultra-jerks? Maybe not to the level Elonis has elevated it, but unkind nonetheless. We non-criminals can learn something from the case of Anthony Elonis. The world would be a more gentle place if we imagined ourselves speaking face to face with the target of our flames before pressing send.