Online harassment is going to the Supreme Court and here’s why that matters

Four years ago, Tara Elonis obtained a restraining order against her now ex-husband Anthony that prohibited him from threatening or contacting her in any way. But that didn’t stop him. Anthony instead moved his threatening behavior to Facebook where he posted statuses such as: “Fold up your protective order and put [it] in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?” and “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you.” After posting threatening comments about an FBI agent who visited him, he was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for issuing illegal threats.

The story does not stop there. Anthony Elonis took the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which will hear oral arguments today to determine whether or not his initial conviction was justified.

Elonis’ case goes far beyond his legal battle with his ex-wife. This will be the first time that the Supreme Court rules on the issue of threats and harassment on social media. And it’s about time. Now that four out of every 10 Internet users have experienced some form of online harassment, we need some clarity on this issue. The Internet isn’t “just the Internet,” it’s a real place where real people say real things that have real consequences. However the Supreme Court rules, it’s good to see them taking Internet harassment seriously.

So what are the arguments? Anthony Elonis’ legal team is claiming that his threatening behavior was “therapeutic” for Anthony and that it should be protected as free speech, just like the rap lyrics that he modeled his threats after. They also claim that the intent of his comments is difficult to interpret because they were issued online. The Justice Department, on the other hand, says that it doesn’t matter whether or not Anthony intended his comments as threats, they still caused distress for Tara.

However this case plays out, the Supreme Court’s ruling will have a huge impact on young women who live and work online. For many of us, Tara Elonis’ story is all too real. A Pew Research report from October found that young women between the ages of 18 and 24 disproportionately experience the most severe forms of Internet harassment such as stalking or sexual harassment.

Some female public figures like programmer and game developer Kathy Sierra face a never-ending stream of Internet harassment. Sierra decided to leave Twitter this fall after 10 years of receiving sustained threats on social media, including an incident in which a hacker publicly posted her home address. But as Pew’s data proves, you don’t have to be famous to be severely harassed online, you just have to be female.

If the Court rules against Anthony Elonis, prosecuting people who make online threats could get a lot easier. But if the Court rules in his favor, it could become even more difficult for women in Tara Elonis’ position to take legal action. The way we understand and define free speech could also change. Whatever happens, we should all pay attention to this case. It’s going to be a big one.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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