The Internet, above all, is about communication. What we’re able to say online, how we should say it, and how other people say it are among the more fascinating aspects of the digital world.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently made groundbreaking news in this area, news that not everyone is pleased with. It just overturned a lower court decision that had supported a prison sentence given to a Pennsylvania man who posted messages on Facebook about killing his estranged wife.
The man’s defense was that he wasn’t serious and that his posts were akin to rap music lyrics. The Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision and a previous jury verdict and sided with the man, with seven justices voting to throw out the conviction, one voting to support it, and one voting to return the case to an appeals court.
The man’s words were ugly. In one post about his wife he wrote, “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.”
The man’s lawyers argued that his posts were a spontaneous form of expression that shouldn’t be considered threatening because he didn’t really mean it and that they should receive protection under the First Amendment.
To the chagrin of women’s and victim’s rights groups, the Supreme Court agreed. It held that the man couldn’t be convicted merely on the basis of the words, even if a reasonable person might consider them threatening. The court ruled that the man could be prosecuted only if he actually intended his words as threats.
The National Center for Victims of Crime contends that it will now be more difficult to persecute stalking crimes.
The man, Anthony Elonis of Bethlehem, Pa., used the pseudonym “Tone Dougie” in his posts, rather than his real name. He’s currently in jail in Pennsylvania on unrelated assault charges after throwing a pot at a woman.
Most of us have seen people lose control on Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and in discussion groups, in emails and in texts, letting loose with angry rants, name calling, cursing, threats, or attacks on another person’s motivations, competence, lifestyle, or national, racial, or religious background.
The name for this type of activity is “flaming,” and such words are called “flames.” The Internet makes flaming more common than in other forms of discourse. You’re separated from others by space and often by time as well.
But abusive discourse isn’t unique to the Internet. Writers, who you might think would know better, are infamous for letting loose:
Even though some of the above may be funny, and despite the Supreme Court’s recent decision, you should still be careful online. In this litigious society of ours, it’s not difficult for someone for sue you for defamation, potentially causing you to have to spend serious money defending yourself.