The United States Supreme Court decision handed down yesterday in Elonis v. U.S. successfully reflects the urging of the Thomas More Society to narrow the federal definition of criminal threat to include proof of intent to harm or injure. Last summer the nonprofit public interest law firm partnered with attorney Brian Murray of Jones Day, in filing an amicus curiae (friend of the Court) brief in the case.
Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, hailed the ruling, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, as a major victory for free speech. Brejcha said, “The ruling in this case, requiring that federal prosecutors charge and prove that a defendant had a subjective intent to cause another person to suffer actual fear of harm, is extremely important for those who advocate in favor of so-called ‘controversial causes,’ especially as they often use militant, emotive, and urgent rhetoric.”
The case against Anthony Elonis was rooted in a series of rap lyrics he posted on Facebook. The violent and lurid words included references to Elonis’ estranged wife, who perceived them as a threat to her life. As a result, Elonis was arrested and charged with a federal crime for transmitting in interstate commerce “any communication containing any threat to injure the person of another.”
Elonis argued that his rap lyrics were an artistic expression and that because he did not intend them to be a threat, his speech should be protected. He was convicted in federal district court and lost in federal appeals court. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last year.
The amicus brief was filed on behalf of pro-life activists, anti-war, and animal rights advocates, whom Brejcha declared, “must be free to speak openly and boldly against whatever they deem to be gross injustice, and whomsoever they deem perpetrators of such injustice, even when their opponents – defenders of the status quo – may attack their advocacy as ‘threatening.'”
Those represented in the Thomas More Society filing included People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, Inc., Operation Rescue, Citizens for a Pro-Life Society, Pro-Life Action League, Inc., Missionaries to the Preborn, Pro-Life Action Ministries, Vote Life America, and numerous individual advocates of the pro-life, anti-war, and animal rights movements.
Brejcha elaborated, “Too often, speakers who employ ardent and emotional rhetoric are blamed for causing their opponents to ‘feel threatened and fearful of bodily harm,’ even though no such fear, let alone bodily harm, was ever intended by the speaker. Once a speaker’s advocacy is found by a judge or jury to contain or constitute a ‘true threat,’ it may be criminalized as well as deemed outside the protection of the First Amendment guarantee for ‘free speech’…the Supreme Court’s newly mandated narrow definition of a ‘true threat’ now helps ensure one of the most basic freedoms enjoyed by American citizens: the right to protest.”
The amicus curiae brief, whose principal author was Brian J. Murray of Jones Day, may be found here. A copy of yesterday’s Supreme Court decision may be found here.
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