Bullying. Threats. Intimidation. Domestic Violence.

The media is abuzz with the phenomenon, both in-person and online, but bullying isn’t just for kids anymore. It’s grown up all the way to Supreme Court of the United States.

If you have been threatened with violence via social media, what are your rights?

The high court has taken up a case to decide the limitations of free speech on social media, and when does someone step over the line: blowing off steam v. making a threat which is punishable as a crime.

This past December, the Supreme Court considered a case in which an estranged husband made the following post on Facebook after his wife obtained a court’s protective order:

“Fold up your PFA [protection-from-abuse order] and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?”

This post, along with others, convinced a jury that the husband was guilty of a crime. In its historic first examination of the limits on free speech in social media, the Supreme Court will decide whether it agrees that the posting constituted a “true threat” to his wife and others.

The issue is whether the husband must have had intent to do harm to his wife rather than just blowing off steam, or is it enough for prosecution of a crime that a reasonable person targeted in a rant would regard it as a threat? Although the Court’s decision will possibly control all social media expression, this case is especially significant in the area of domestic violence.

Domestic violence experts report that social media has become a powerful tool for dispensing threats which can cause real-life terror. Caused by increasingly graphic and public posts on Facebook and other social media sites, this terror is exacerbated because abusers now have the power of technology enabling them to reach deep into their target’s everyday life. All with the click of a mouse or touch of a screen.

Today there is no clear answer to this question. Some courts require that the defendant must intend to make good on the posted warnings or threats, while others require only that a “reasonable person” would view the posts to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual as a serious expression of intent. Although the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld this conviction, the Supreme Court has never given a clear answer as to whether intent must be proved.

Hopefully, the Supreme Court will give a clear definition in this case. It is interesting to note that the same Justices who will not communicate via email with each other are increasingly called upon to decide issues concerning evolving technology.

Be careful about what is posted on your Facebook account; and if you are made aware of any posts by which you feel threatened, you should take action.

Paul W. Brown

This is an article written by Paul W. Brown, from the Law Office of Paul W. Brown, P.C. Published with permission.

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