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Mount Holly Criminal Lawyers: Facebook Rants: Free Speech or Criminal Threat?

December 15, 2015

Mount Holly Criminal Lawyers: Facebook Rants: Free Speech or Criminal Threat?

A recent Supreme Court case questioned whether a Facebook rant by an Allentown, Pennsylvania man should be considered an invocation of his right to freedom of speech protected by The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, or whether it should be considered a criminal threat.

The trouble for the 31 year old started when his wife left him in early 2010.  He was fired months later from his job for making threatening posts online that featured a coworker who had reported him for sexual harassment.  Following his termination, the man’s violent posts increased in frequency and at one point included enough suggestion that he may commit a school shooting that the FBI paid him a visit.  He was reportedly quoting rap artist Eminem and lyrics of other hip hop performers.  The man claimed that his comments were jokes, not meant as threats, and that the violent prose was a form of therapy for his depressive state.

The man in this case was imprisoned in 2011 for making remarks on Facebook about wishing to kill his estranged wife and others, including one of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents who had visited him.  He was sentenced to three years and eight months in federal prison.

Criminal Liability in Internet Speech

In an eight to one majority decision, the Supreme Court overturned the criminal conviction, citing that the reasonable person standard was not enough for conviction.  The jury was wrongly instructed, having been told that the standard should be whether or not a reasonable person would regard the words as a threat, and that is incorrect.  Instead, it decided, the prosecution must show that the writer’s intent was meant to be threatening.  Criminal liability must consider the defendant’s mental state.

There is widespread interest in this case, because the Supreme Court was asked to define what constitutes criminal liability in Internet speech.  Proponents of free speech were concerned that the casual posts and written Internet exchanges in which many people engage would be subject to scrutiny wherein no harmful intent is implied.  Prior to this ruling, in many federal jurisdictions including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, the standard was only that the subject of a violent Internet expression must feel threatened.

In the ruling, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. stressed that the decision is a narrow one, and the law in question does not explain what mental state is required for conviction.  Justice Samuel Alito dissented in part.  Although Justice Samuel Alito agreed with the reversal of the conviction, he disagreed with the reasoning of Chief Roberts, stating that the undefined mental state requirement for criminal conviction should have been better defined, and he expressed concern about ramifications for the lower courts in deciding similar issues.

The man in this case was released from federal prison in February 2014, and was subsequently jailed in April 2015 on domestic assault charges for hitting his girlfriend’s mother with a pot.

The United States Attorney’s office in Philadelphia is seeking another trial.

Mount Holly Criminal Lawyers at The Law Offices of Michele Finizio Assist Individuals Facing Criminal Charges in South Jersey

If you or someone you know is facing criminal charges in New Jersey, call Mount Holly criminal lawyers at The Law Offices of Michele Finizio for a free consultation at her conveniently located Moorestown, New Jersey offices.  With a reputation as an aggressive and knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer in South Jersey, Michele Finizio, Esq. represents clients in New Jersey criminal court and traffic and municipal court as well as those who need criminal defense in juvenile court throughout Cherry Hill, Moorestown, Mount Holly, Burlington County, Salem County, Gloucester County, Mercer County, Atlantic County and Camden County.

Our Mount Holly criminal lawyers also handle assault and battery, drug possession, gun offenses, resisting arrest and illegal search and seizure cases.  For aggressive criminal defense in Mount Holly call (856) 242-7300 or contact us online today.

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