• Twitter
  • Facebook
News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

First things first

Strange times for the First Amendment. In one story, we have the Supreme Court pretty narrowly defining what is a threat and being generous with free speech:

In a closely-watched case about free speech online, the Supreme Court on Monday overturned the conviction of a man whose online rants landed him in prison.

The case involved Anthony Elonis, a Pennsylvania man who used Facebook FB 1.83% to make a series of violent rants against his wife and others, often citing the rapper Eminem and using hip-hop lyrics. He claimed his rants did not amount to “true threats,” and that his comments were jokes and a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment.

The court sided with Elonis, finding that simply using a reasonable person standard was inadequate for conviction; instead, prosecutors must show that the writer in question actually meant the words to be threatening.

“Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state. That understanding “took deep and early root in American soil” and Congress left it intact here,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts for an 8-1 majority.

This is one of those cases where the technology is new, but the principle is timeless. It's probably even more important to consider intent online, since that has developed into such a negative forum. Rants there simply don't mean what they do in the real world.

But now we have this story about a U.S. Attorney's Office demanding information on anonymous commenters from Reason magazine's blog site:

Wielding subpoenas demanding information on anonymous commenters, the government is harassing a respected journalism site that dissents from its policies. The U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York claims these comments could constitute violent threats, even though they’re clearly hyperbolic political rhetoric.

This is happening in America -- weirdly, to a site I founded, and one whose commenters often earned my public contempt.

That's why we need the First Amendment and courts that take it seriously. Free speech is always vulnerable to bureaucratic thugs who wish we would just shut. the. hell. up.