When are social media posts freedom of speech and when are they red flags of harassment or violence?
That's the question the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider this week amid months of public outcry from the legal community demanding that the court clear up what's OK and what's not on Facebook timelines.
As Gawker reported in April, the need for legal standards for online threats was raised when a Dutch teenager was arrested for tweeting a threat to American Airlines. Vice's Harry Cheadle argued that the law needs to be clear on the issue.
"Airlines are prone to hyper-vigilance after 9/11, but does that justify the overreaction to @QueenDemetriax_’s tweet?" Cheadle wrote. "How can we expect teens to understand what is and isn’t illegal speech online when the true threat doctrine is as muddled as it is?"
The high court agreed to shed light on the issue this week amid another headline-grabbing case. As Slate reported Monday, Anthony Elonis posted hate-filled rap songs online after his wife left him in 2010. In the raps, Elonis threatened to kill his wife, as well as a member of the FBI and a kindergarten class.
In a May Forbes column, three law professors argued that the court would have a hard time differentiating the threats from freedom of speech: "Context becomes further complicated when a so-called threat is a lyric from a musical genre that often privileges highly exaggerated, confrontational and violent rhetoric," they wrote.
Regardless of perspective, most media coverage has centered on a need for legal guidance for online harassment. Pacific Standard writer Amanda Hess wrote back in January that the law was so grey that she dubbed online harassment "the next civil rights issue" for women. But like others, she was confounded to find that law enforcement knew little about the issue — or social media at all — when one officer asked her what Twitter was.
"The Internet is a global network, but when you pick up the phone to report an online threat ... you end up face-to-face with a cop who patrols a comparatively puny jurisdiction," Hess wrote. "It shouldn’t be Twitter’s responsibility to hunt down and sanction criminals who use its service—that’s what cops are (supposedly) for."
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