First Amendment - Supreme Court Declines to Decide When Online Speech Becomes an Illegal Threa

Updated by Endah
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Supreme Court Declines to Decide When Online Speech Becomes an Illegal Threat

The Supreme Court declined Monday to weigh into the legal thicket of when an online threat becomes worthy of prosecution, a decision leaving conflicting federal appellate court views on the topic.

Without comment, the justices let stand an Iraq war veteran’s 18-month sentence for singing in a YouTube video he would kill a local Tennessee judge if the judge did not grant him visitation rights to his young daughter.

The veteran’s petition to the high court comes at a time when it’s routine for adults and juveniles to be prosecuted in federal and state court for their threatening online speech.
Attorneys for the veteran, Franklin Jeffries, maintained that the federal threats law — which dates to a 1932 statute making extortion illegal and applies to the offline world as well — was unconstitutional. A felony conviction, these lawyers said, is wrongly based on whether a “reasonable person” (.pdf) would believe the threatening statement was made with the intent to inflict bodily injury and was uttered to achieve some goal through intimidation.

The convict’s counsel argued to the justices in a filing that what should matter is whether the person making the threat was serious, not whether a “reasonable person” believed the threat would be carried out.

Jeffries was suffering post traumatic stress disorder and never intended to carry out his words, his lawyers said. They said psychologists urged him to vent his frustration with the child-custody courts in a song.
In his eight-minute YouTube video, Jeffries strummed a guitar while singing a song of revenge in 2010.

“And when I come to court this better be the last time. I’m not kidding at all, I’m making this video public. ‘Cause if I have to kill a judge or a lawyer or a woman I don’t care,” Jeffries chants on the video.

“Take my child and I’ll take your life,” the song continues.

Of eight circuit courts of appeal to decide the issue, only the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has chosen to view the law in line with Jeffries’ interpretation. When there is a split in circuits, that’s often when the high court intervenes to assure conformity across the country.
The Obama administration argued in a brief to the justices that the federal law, which is mirrored by many state statutes, is designed to protect individuals from fearing violence, regardless of whether the person who made the threat actually meant it.