One man's threatening rap lyrics on Facebook landed him in jail. Now, the Supreme Court weighs in on what counts as free speech
The Supreme Court is currently deliberating on free speech, and rap lyrics are at the center of the conversation.
Elonis v. United States is a case about a Pennsylvania man, Anthony Elonis, who posted threatening statuses on Facebook in reference to his estranged wife, writing things like “I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts,” and, “There’s one way to love you but a thousands ways to kill you.”
Elonis’s wife reported the Facebook postings to police, and Elonis was charged with “transmitting interstate threats to injure the person of another” and sentenced to four years in prison. Elonis’s lawyers contested that he was an aspiring rapper and those were meaningless lyrics that he wrote and posted online. Elonis compared his verses to Eminem, reports NBC News.
Chief Justice John Roberts, who defends Elnois’s right to free speech and doesn’t see a difference between the aspiring and professional rappers, quoted Eminem on Monday: “Dada make a nice bed for mommy at the bottom of the lake.” He asked Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben whether Eminem could be prosecuted.
“Eminem said it at a concert where people are going to be entertained,” Dreeben rebutted. “This is a critical part of the context. It wasn’t as if he stated it to her in private or on a Facebook page after having received a protection from abuse order.”
Roberts responded, pointing out that Dreeben’s reasoning had the potential to stifle up-and-coming rappers. Conservative Justice Samuel Alito disagreed, saying that allowing online threats such as Elonis’s is a slippery slope.
“This sounds like a roadmap for threatening a spouse and getting away with it,” Alito said, according to National Journal. “You put it in rhyme, and you put some stuff about the Internet on it, and you say, ‘I’m an aspiring rap artist.’ And so then, you are free from prosecution.”
A ruling won’t be announced until June. If the Court rules against Elonis, the decision could blur the lines of online free speech and what could be perceived as a threat.
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