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.
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.
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.
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.