Supreme Court Declines to Decide When Online Speech Becomes an Illegal Threat
The Supreme Court declined Monday to weigh into the legal thicket of when an online threat becomes worthy of prosecution, a decision leaving conflicting federal appellate court views on the topic.
Without comment, the justices let stand an Iraq war veteran’s 18-month sentence for singing in a YouTube video he would kill a local Tennessee judge if the judge did not grant him visitation rights to his young daughter.
The veteran’s petition to the high court comes at a time when it’s routine for adults and juveniles to be prosecuted in federal and state court for their threatening online speech.
Attorneys for the veteran, Franklin Jeffries, maintained that the federal threats law — which dates to a 1932 statute making extortion illegal and applies to the offline world as well — was unconstitutional. A felony conviction, these lawyers said, is wrongly based on whether a “reasonable person” (.pdf) would believe the threatening statement was made with the intent to inflict bodily injury and was uttered to achieve some goal through intimidation.