The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a man who made threats against his wife on Facebook after she left him did not violate the law.
As CNN reports, the case marks the first time that the Supreme Court has issued a ruling regarding freedom of speech on social media. The court overturned the conviction of Anthony D. Elonis, who had been charged under a federal threat statute and sent to jail for 44 months. The violent messages had been posted in the form of rap lyrics under the alias Tone Dougie, calling for his wife’s “head on a stick” and fantasizing about being involved in a school shooting, among other dark topics.
According to The New York Times, The Supreme Court’s decision ultimately stems from the fact that prosecutors do not have enough evidence to prove Elonis’s intent with the messages. Elonis’s attorney claimed that the lyrics were inspired by Eminem, intended to be poetic expressions of his emotions rather than literal truth. While a “true threat” is not protected by the First Amendment, there must be more proof of malicious intent in order to issue a conviction.
If the Supreme Court had ruled any differently, it could have set a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech online. There have been more and more cases of this type being tested in the lower courts, as both society and the law comes to terms with the way interactions are handled online. Arresting people for things they say online could be beneficial if it stops true violence from occurring, but that could easily slip into Minority Report-level prosecution of thought crime. If people aren’t actually doing anything wrong, their freedom of speech should be protected no matter how easy it is to view what they’ve said online.
Despite this ruling, another form of thought policing has been quietly taking place throughout the United States in recent months: American citizens are being arrested for expressing support for or desire to join the Islamic State. Although ISIS is an abhorrent, murderous organization that should not be supported by any American citizen, the fact that people are being arrested for talking about it online is setting a precedent as dangerous as a Supreme Court ruling against Elonis could have been.
The justification for these arrests is typically flimsy. Take, for instance, the case of Muhanad Badawi and Nader Elhuzayel, two 24-year-old men from Anaheim, California, who were arrested just last week. “According to an affidavit in support of the criminal complaint filed Friday in court, Badawi and Elhuzayel used social media to discuss ISIS and terrorist attacks, expressed a desire to die as martyrs and made arrangements for Elhuzayel to leave the U.S. to join ISIS,” ABC 7 reported. No matter how terrible ISIS may be, there’s nothing illegal about leaving the U.S. to travel to Iraq or Syria. There’s also nothing illegal about discussing issues related to the group online.
There’s a lot of talk about government surveillance in the U.S. lately, and the arrest of suspected ISIS sympathizers is one of the major abuses taking place on a regular basis. People have been arrested all around the country — in Texas, New York, Illinois, Minnesota and Florida. Canada and the U.K. have made similar arrests. In all of the U.S.-based arrests, there have been no reports of immediate threats to the country. The only crime is that the suspects were monitored talking about ISIS online by federal agents, and then arrested before they could leave the country. According to Breitbart, the only evidence against a Texas man was his post to an alleged Turkish terrorist stating, “I wanna join ISIS can you help?”
While the recent Supreme Court ruling will be viewed as a victory for civil liberties in the U.S., it’s clear that those freedoms are guaranteed to only a certain segment of the population. The Muslim population is subject to intense scrutiny, criminalized for discussing radical thoughts online even if there’s no evidence at all of any sort of “true threat.”
The U.S. is engaged in military conflict with ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but it’s unclear whether arresting citizens at home is the right approach to curbing the Islamic State’s influence. ISIS undoubtedly needs to be stopped, as does the group’s power and sway over young individuals who flee their home nations to join them. Yet there’s an extremely clear difference between true crime and thought crime, and the recent Supreme Court ruling should show the federal government that its trend of arresting people for talking about ISIS online is entirely unjust.