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Supreme Court To Make Ruling On Social Media Free Speech

Threats Or Frets?

Social media, by its very nature, provides the everyman with a soapbox from which to share his views - no matter how misinformed, opinionated or ill-judged. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it's important for human beings to feel like we have a place from which to vent, and not everyone would have the ability to do so without platforms such as Facebook or Twitter

On December 1st, an argument will be presented to the US Supreme Court that will claim that Americans’ rights to free speech need to be more recognised online. This could result in all online comments - no matter how dark or threatening they may appear - becoming legal, thwarting the potential for our statuses to land us in prison

supreme court social media
source: doubleeblessedmom.com

Much like the words which come tumbling so thoughtlessly out of our mouths, the topic of online free speech is an incredibly murky one, without a clear line in the sand. The rules are notoriously complicated, which is partly because the internet (and social media specifically) are, in legal terms, so damn new. In print journalism, what writers can and can’t get away with is relatively clear. Although people’s right to free speech stretch far, there are laws against libel and slander (brilliantly, you can’t libel the dead, which is why it's perfectly fine for me to say that Adolf Hitler was into some really nasty stuff in the bedroom). 

In other words, the rules are at least fairly transparent.

So how does that translate to the internet? When people are in front of their keyboards, are they aware what does and does not cross whatever invisible line it is that can never be crossed? So-called trolls (a rather light-hearted term for such a serious topic in my opinion; trolls prod fun at people’s beliefs instead of threatening to rape people) seem to have been unanimously criticised for their comments, and I'm not against this per se. 

But it seems that those who have felt the full strength of the law after making comments online have received almost no sympathy at all - from anyone. And I'm talking about the actual, real law here. The one that usually deals with murderers and rapists, not idiots behind keyboards.

supreme court social media
source: mybroadband.co.za

I’m not here to be the one who provides them with that sympathy, but I am prepared to argue that the unanimous condemning of people who’ve had their whole lives unexpectedly ruined in 140 characters or less is at least slightly unfair. After all, I would be confident in saying that most people reading this have said at least one thing on the internet that, if taken out of context, could be seen as extraordinarily offensive to someone, somewhere. While your comment will probably not land you with any jail time, whose responsibility is it to decide where on the scale it falls?  

Obviously, threats of rape or physical violence are incredibly extreme, but the point at which the line of acceptability begins and ends is currently completely invisible. This is why the appeal that’s about to be taken to the US Supreme Court will argue that it’s better to give people too much free speech than it is to risk stifling them completely. In the words of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, “[America] has a long history of protecting provocative speech.”

A recent Wall Street Journal article lists examples. The following threats were made by an attendee of an anti-war rally in 1966: “If they ever make me carry a rifle, the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ.” This speech was deemed as nothing more than “political hyperbole,” and promptly flung out of court. Nowadays, we’re surrounded by artists like Eminem, whose song “Kim” (a touching ode to an ex wife) contains the following lyrics:

You were supposed to love me
{*Kim choking*}
NOW BLEED! BITCH BLEED!
BLEED! BITCH BLEED! BLEED!
Heartfelt stuff.

supreme court social media
source: tommedvedich.com

Beyond Eminem's fame, what makes his lyrics a piece of art, the protestor’s statement 'hyperbole', and the following comment, made by a guy named Anthony Elonis, a genuine threat worth three years' jail time (more information here)? 

“If only I knew then what I know now, I would have smothered [you] with a pillow, dumped your body in the back seat, dropped you off in Toad Creek, and made it look like a rape and murder.” 
It's a chilling statement, no doubt, but one has to wonder why this was taken literally and the other examples weren't. Furthermore, was three years' imprisonment justified? To put that into perspective, it's about the same amount of time served by Ched Evans, a footballer convicted for rape. 

I'm not here to argue definitively either way. I'm no lawyer, and I'm far from an expert in law. However, I strongly believe the following question should be considered by everyone who has ever used social media: should we be legally liable for the comments we post online? If we are, at what point does a prison sentence become justified, and to what extent can online threats be taken seriously? 

Answers in the comments. I'd love to hear what you think. 


Emile is a postgrad from the University of Saint Mark and Saint John. He’s hoping to break into journalism or publishing, and won’t stop blogging until he’s managed it! Follow him @EmileAtSMF.

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Supreme Court To Make Ruling On Social Media Free Speech Reviewed by Emile Cole on Monday, November 24, 2014 Rating: 5
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