Whether, consistent with the First Amendment and Virginia v. Black, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) requires proof of the defendant's subjective intent to threaten, as required by the Ninth Circuit and the supreme courts of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont; or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening, as held by other federal courts of appeals and state courts of last resort.Yesterday, the Supreme Court held that the "reasonable person" test is insufficient to support a conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c). The Court did not address what level of intent is required to support a conviction, and the Court did not decide whether the reasonable person test was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The Court's opinion is available here. Coverage from Lyle Denniston at SCOTUSBlog is available here.
This high-profile case was eagerly awaited by many legal commentators, but ultimately resulted in a very narrow decision. Eugene Volokh notes the narrowness of the case here, and Orin Kerr argues that this narrowness was a good call.
While the Elonis case involved arguments touching on constitutional law, it is important to note that the Court explicitly avoided addressing First Amendment issues. Accordingly, while coverage noting that the Elonis decision is a victory for free speech may involve technically accurate descriptions of the ruling, readers should keep in mind that the Court did not wade into the question of whether 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) violates the First Amendment -- even if the statute is applied in a manner that asks whether a reasonable person would feel threatened by the statement.
Moreover, while the Court did indeed conclude that a defendant prosecuted under 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) must have a level of intent greater than negligence, it is important to note that this does not mean that a defendant must "intend to threaten" somebody in the conventional sense of the word. Summaries of the opinion claiming that defendants now must truly intend to make a threat, while accurate, may be misleading, since this language suggests that an individual must make a statement with the purpose to threaten somebody.
But the Court did not decide that a statement must be made with the purpose to threaten -- the Court simply held that it is not sufficient that the prosecution prove that a defendant negligently made a statement that would cause a reasonable person to regard the statement as threatening. A defendant may possibly violate 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) if he or she knowingly or recklessly makes a statement that another may feel threatened by. For instance the prosecution may succeed if it proves that a defendant made a statement that he or she knew would cause another to feel threatened, or that the statement would create a substantial risk that somebody else would feel threatened. The Court did not hold that the prosecution must prove that a statement is made with the purpose to threaten another. Readers in the legal community should have no trouble noting that "intent" does not necessarily mean "purpose." But I fear that the wider audience who reads broadly-worded commentary on the decision will be left with an impression that the Court's ruling is far wider than it actually was.
Ultimately, Elonis is a narrow decision, and I suspect that there is a great deal of litigation still to come that will attempt to answer the questions that Elonis leaves open. In the meantime, I hope that commentators and the general public will recognize Elonis for its narrowness rather than criticizing it or praising it for what it is not. Elonis is not a landmark victory for the First Amendment. Nor does it give people carte blanche to threaten others online. Elonis simply prohibits one way of interpreting 18 U.S.C. § 875(c) and leaves questions of free speech and required levels of intent for another day.