Last week, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that, in all honesty, should be straightforward. Elonis v. United States serves as a testament to our technology-overloaded times: a man, Anthony Elonis, wrote terrible, awful, disgusting threats about his now ex-wife on his Facebook page; the ex-wife justifiably freaked out and went to the police; and a lower court doled out a forty-four month sentence. Cue the squealing Free Speech advocates—including myself.
To me, at least, this is an open-and-shut case. While Elonis did write some capital-H horrifying statements, he has as much a right to say them as I do to say, “I love dogs!” The Supreme Court has an obligation to be absolutist when it comes to the First Amendment; if the Justices don’t uphold the rights that define us as Americans, they corrode the fabric of our national self-identity. That sounds melodramatic, but our rights are woven throughout American culture. We hold ourselves up to be “The Land of Liberty”, “The Home of the Free and the Brave”, and “The Last Great Bastion of Freedom.” Just turn on any country music station—you can’t get through more than four songs without hearing praise for the United States as a free nation. Freedom might not be free, but it is our signature characteristic. The Supreme Court must do what it can to uphold it.
What’s ironic is that Elonis himself knew what he was getting into. In the midst of myriad sickening posts, he also wrote on his Facebook, “Did you know that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife? It’s illegal. It’s indirect criminal contempt. It’s one of the only sentences I’m not allowed to say.”
And if somebody as obviously troubled as Elonis can recognize the injustice in this situation, you know we’ve got a problem.
This case would be entirely different if Elonis had spoken these statements aloud. Had he said horrible words in public, I’m convinced our legal system would leave him alone. But social media complicates and convolutes our justice system. After all, it’s hard to make Constitution-based rulings on cases involving technology that our Founding Fathers never could have imagined.
But this case, and the attention it’s receiving, pokes at a deeper impulse of our modern culture. It hints at the panic of a society that wakes up nearly every morning and reads about a shooting. As a nation, we’ve watched terror strike at those who attempt the most innocent of actions, from going to school to running a marathon. And every time a tragedy unfolds, we point fingers at our law-and-order system and demand to know why the offenders were not stopped.
“If only the police had checked his Facebook,” we say, “they would have been able to stop this guy.”
Frankly, we’re better than this. America is better than this. We need to rise above our fear, to cut through the hectic fog of our era and at least try to see clearly. Sometimes, it’s not enough to have good intentions; we need to protect speech in its entirety, out loud or online, as long as it does not directly put anyone in danger (and there’s no evidence that Elonis’s statements themselves endangered his wife). The Supreme Court needs to overturn the ruling on this case—not for Elonis’s sake, but for ours.