Ninth Discussion in SCOTUS Series Tackles Social Media

The ninth weekly meeting of Ramapo’s Supreme Court of the United States, also known as SCOTUS, discussion series centered on the Elonis v. United States case. As usual, the public forum, hosted by the LAWS Convening Group and the Civic and Community Engagement Center was held in the Alumni Lounges.

The SCOTUS discussion series consists of 10 forums, held every Tuesday of the semester. Their purpose is to encourage meaningful, hour-long debates between students, faculty and staff interest in cases handled by the Supreme Court in recent years. Pizza is served during each debate and participating students receive participation credit.

This week’s discussion was presented and mediated by David Oh, professor in communication arts.

Anthony Elonis was involved in making multiple threats to multiple people on Facebook. The threats were seen as a violation of federal law, which states, “Whoever transmits in an interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.” Because the threats were made on social media, the threats were made across interstate borders, falling under federal jurisdiction.

There were several counts made against Elonis, first of which was based on an image he posted of himself holding a plastic toy knife behind a coworker with the caption, “I wish.” The caption was seen as a threat and his employer decided to fire him. Additionally, Elonis started to threaten his wife through posts on Facebook, resulting in a restraining order. The order once again sparked his anger, and Elonis threatened officials by stating he had explosives. Elonis appealed his conviction and argued that “true threats” need to have a concrete intent to threaten. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Court affirmed his appeal.

The discussion did not center upon the legality of the court’s decision or whether it is the right one or not. Instead, the discussion focused mostly upon threats delivered through social media.

Students, faculty and staff had a difficult time discussing the subject because although the legality of the decision is not complicated, the implications it creates are. Students also criticized the loopholes in the decision because although the court based their decisions on whether a person has a true intent to threaten, they did not establish a way to prove intent. Students felt that there should be a way to check whether people are able to be violent as they claim.

Student, faculty and staff also discussed threats made on social media in comparison to threats made in other contexts. Participants questioned the difference of the threats made on Facebook and threats made elsewhere and at which point the threats are considered to be true and convictable.

At the end of the discussion, most students felt current laws and regulations are not up to par with technology in general and social media in particular. Many left the discussion pondering the ways in which US society has changed over the past 10 years.