“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
While that quote is often misattributed to Voltaire, it’s not that far off. In fact, the words come from a biography of the French philosopher written by Evelyn Beatrice Hall wherein the author tried to encapsulate Voltaire’s beliefs.
Though a Frenchman, Voltaire’s beliefs certainly influenced the American Revolution and helped shape the United States as we know it. In fact, his influence on the formation of the country is immediately apparent: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech,” reads the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights.
Of course, over the years, the Supreme Court has abridged that amendment, if not the spirit behind it. Some highlights include:
- Schenck v. United States – In 1919, the court ruled that speech could be limited if that speech resulted in a “clear and a present danger” that encouraged the use of force. (That ruling was augmented 50 years later in Brandenburg v. Ohio when the court decided such threats had to be imminent.)
- Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire – In 1942, the court ruled that “fighting words” – i.e., words that are cause a breach of the peace – were not protected.
- Virginia v. Black – In 2003, the court ruled that speech directed at people that ostensibly results in putting them at risk for bodily harm is not protected. However, in Watts v. United States (1969), the court ruled that if the party the speech was directed at understood the hyperbole in the speech, it is protected as it’s not a real threat, per se.
So while we enjoy a freedom of speech in America, we certainly do have limitations to that speech. You can’t yell “BOMB!” in a movie theater, for example.
Freedom of Speech in the Digital Age
It appears as though we’re on the precipice of the court weighing in on another monumental case that will almost certainly redefine our First Amendment once again.
The question before the court is simple: When does an instant message or a tweet become a threat? Better yet, does it even become a threat at all?
Meet Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man who took to his Facebook page to vent about his estranged wife. Of course, that venting could certainly be interpreted to be scary, and even violent, by some. Case in point? Here’s a snippet from one of the posts:
There’s one way to love ya, but a thousand ways to kill ya,
And I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess,
Soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.
Hurry up and die, bitch.
If you can believe it, that’s actually among the less graphic excerpts, but you get the point.
Elonis’ wife eventually got scared and obtained a restraining order against him. But Elonis’ digital abuse didn’t stop there. In fact, he kept going and going and going, reciting rap lyrics written in the same vein as Eminem on his Facebook page. It’s important to note, however, that Elonis sprinkled in disclaimers on his Facebook page, telling friends that he was just venting and not to take anything seriously.
A jury of his peers, however, didn’t agree that Elonis was just playing around; he was sentenced to 44 months in prison under a federal threat statute.
But the case is under appeal, so we’ll soon find out whether the Supreme Court feels that Elonis was operating within his constitutionally protected rights when he took to social media to “vent.”
So, What’s Next?
What would happen if Elonis wrote his words down in a notebook and gave that notebook to friends to read? Chances are there wouldn’t be anywhere near the uproar we’ve seen.
Yet that’s essentially what he did – just in the digital world. His wife, after all, never has to go to his Facebook page to see what he’s saying about her. Sure, there’s curiosity there – either on her part or on the part of her friends – which is certainly why she ended up finding out about his postings in the first place.
But the fact that Elonis was arrested and put in jail makes you wonder how people like Eminem get away with it, rapping about killing his ex-wife and just about anyone else, for that matter. Eminem’s lyrics are shared publicly, so an argument can be made that both of these men vented their demons in the same exact manner.
People are idiots. There are endless stories of people posting stupid statements on social media and regretting them almost instantly. There are also instances of people posting unfounded threats, and at the end of the day, being embarrassed and remorseful.
Elonis should certainly have been investigated because of his posts and actions. But at the end of the day, after that investigation didn’t uncover any nefarious plots to actually murder his estranged wife, the police should have washed their hands and been done with it.
So long as someone’s speaking in the comfort of their own home without any plans of committing any crimes, no crimes have been committed.
Sure – maybe it’s unfortunate that we can’t throw idiots in jail. But if we start arresting everyone for saying stupid things on the Internet, you and I and everyone we know would almost certainly end up behind bars.
Image Credit: Flickr (via Creative Commons)
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