Online vs Face-to-Face Threats: There’s a Difference?

Elonis v. United States

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A client that you’ve been working with for some time comes in for a session and explains to you how her ex has posted violent, threatening comments on his Facebook that appear to be directed towards her. She tells you that he typed that these words are a form of “art” and “lyrics”; however, she is visibly upset, feels that she is being stalked by him, and is even scared for both her own life and that of her children.

So, what did he write? Well, he wrote that he wants to see his son wearing a Halloween costume that has “his wife’s head on a stick.” He talks about wanting to do a school shooting and finishes this comment with “like a crazy man in a kindergarten class,” stating that he would create a massacre. And after your client gets a protection order from abuse, her ex-husband then writes “Fold up your PFA and put it in your pocket; is it thick enough to stop a bullet?” Again, he writes this on Facebook.

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As her social worker, you know the background of her situation with her ex-husband and herself and the children. You know how scared she is and how these “ lyrics” crafted by her ex have been perceived as direct threats to her and her children, not just “art” or “venting” as her ex has stated. His words have scared her even more because she knows what he has said to her face-to-face in the past.

As social workers, we understand just how horrifying domestic disputes between partners can be for clients. We hear these stories, and we see and hear the pain in clients’ voices. But what happens when threatening words are said online and not in-person? Well this is what SCOTUS had to think about when they made their decision regarding Elonis v. United States.

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Elonis v. United States involved a woman who found her ex-husband’s words on Facebook to be threatening, and she feared for her life and the lives of her two children. Her ex-husband wrote the words previously mentioned above. The comment about the Halloween costume had been written in a Facebook thread started by the woman’s sister, who wanted to take her niece and nephew Halloween costume shopping. The woman responded to her sister, and then her ex-husband, Anthony Elonis, responded that he did not know what their son’s costume would exactly entail, but then wrote in the same comment “maybe your head on a stick?” This comment was directed at her, his ex-wife; he posted it below a comment that she made in a thread between her and her sister. Another post stated “If I only knew then what I know now […] I would have dropped your a– off in Toad Creek and made it look like a rape and murder.” To many people, especially a woman whose ex-husband had previously threatened her, these comments made on Facebook would most likely be unnerving. But when you take into consideration that these written words will be analyzed and used to set a standard regarding the legal system, these comments can then be argued to be just “art” or “not actually literal.”

What SCOTUS decided was that prosecutors who tried Elonis’ case did not go far enough as to actually prove that there was any intent. They felt that the context of written words online is a difficult topic compared to, say, a threat made face-to-face. It was an 8-1 decision—a loss for the victim.

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This case really set a lot of people back, particularly because online bullying has become such a major issue. When this case is analyzed outside of a legal context or lens, particularly when viewing it from a direct practice lens, we can really see how threats from clients’ ex- or current partners in an online format can be very frightening and even seem life-threatening, making these clients feel directly targeted and unsafe. This case makes us wonder how our clients are supposed to feel safe when someone facing legal action can backtrack and say “just kidding,” even though the words they had written were direct and specific in regards to who, how, and where.

As someone who understands the legal reasoning behind SCOTUS’ decision but also understands that threats made online should not be any different from a threat made verbally, this case still feels like a setback for victims of domestic violence, stalking, and bullying.

The internet has created a new platform for abusers and bullies to further terrorize victims. As social workers, we need to keep pushing forward and address these issues. We need to further educate others on just how verbal and written abuse affects victims. It can difficult for someone, including legislators, to understand what victims go through, especially if said person has never experienced the abuse these victims have been through. We need to continue to provide a safe place for our clients to heal. We cannot let a SCOTUS decision that has left some feeling that abusers can continue to abuse with no consequences deter progress that has already been made and will continue to be made in the names of victims of abuse.

4 thoughts on “Online vs Face-to-Face Threats: There’s a Difference?

  1. This is a very interesting case! I love how you took the facts of the cases and presented both sides, the social workers view, and SCOTU’S view. As a social worker I think that the Supreme Court could have ruled more strictly against the ex-husband. These threatening comments would make anyone uncomfortable, especially threatening rape and murder. I understand that the Supreme Court needed more evidence of intent, but it is still a scary thought to think this man could potentially do harm to his ex-wife. Also I absolutely love the memes and pictures you use in your blog posts! They always make my laugh! Great job!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well-written post. I understand your contention that this was a “loss” for the victim with the Court decision, but I actually agree with the Court’s decision. The United States is unique in how far our speech laws (which draw their basis in the 1st Amendment of course) go to protect even hostile, unsettling, or upsetting speech. While there are limits on threatening speech, the Court was right here in deciding that these limits were not reached in this case.

    One analogy to explain why this did not truly constitute threatening speech (which can be restricted) is something I learned in the military regarding when someone constitutes a physical threat for which you are justified to act in self-defense against. In order for someone to constitute a true threat, the must demonstrate capability to do you harm (i.e. wields a weapon or physically stronger than you, etc.), an opportunity to do you harm (i.e. they are actually within a physical distance to you to act on the threat), and intent (clearly states aim to do you harm). While the situation is obviously different for an online threat, I think the same general principles can and should apply when it comes to determining whether speech constitutes a true threat and should be restricted.

    As much as a sympathize with the ex-wife in this case and understand how scared she may feel in this situation, I think it is a legal slippery slope to introduce criminal penalties to speech such as the ex-husband’s here. The standard for what constitutes speech which needs to be restricted is extremely high in the U.S., and rightly so, I would argue.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Justice Alito was on to something, I think. Recklessness, not intent, should create the general standard for determining the legality of online conduct. This case was similar to the case I reviewed in that, the court’s moral abstinence or inability to peer beyond the legal parameters of a case, inhibit it from conducting justice… or at least, fairness. Many of us, as social workers, recognize that these comments are emblematic of broader social practices of violence against women because we connect individual behaviors, beliefs, values, etc. to the systems and structures that empower and validate them. Anyway, weird case but great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post! I think this case is definitely a tricky one, with many complications and more questions that would need to be answered. I do think there should be some sort of penalty (even a fine) for the words the ex-husband has used. I think some sort of penalty could help prevent further emotional abuse via online, but then I also see the point in how the court did not have enough evidence. Definitely a tricky and touchy subject. Good post!!

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