A Threat By Any Other Name: Elonis v. United States of America

Schwartz, Fox & Saltzman, LLC. – Philadelphia Divorce Lawyers

Pennsylvania has a Protection from Abuse (“PFA”) Statute, which is designed to protect persons in loving relationships, family members and household members from abuse, as it is defined in the statute. In order to discuss abuse, one must first have that term defined. In layman’s language, abuse is:

  1. Threat of Imminent, Serious Bodily Injury;
  2. The infliction of Serious Bodily Injury;
  3. Sexual Abuse on a Child;
  4. False Imprisonment; and
  5. Performing acts which put a person in reasonable fear of imminent bodily injury.

Once it is found that this abuse has happened, a person can have an Order of Abuse entered against them, which can prohibit any type of contact or communication by that person, or someone else on behalf of that person. If such an order is entered, any type of threat, communication or contact by the person so ordered would be a violation of the PFA Order. The protected person would then be able to contact the Police and report the violation. Once reported, the person ordered not to have any contact would then be arrested and charged with a criminal violation of the PFA Order.

Presently before the U.S. Supreme Court is the case Elonis v. United States of America. In this case, Mr. Elonis had a Protection from Abuse Order entered against him. As such, he was prohibited from threatening the protected person, or having any contact with her.

Rather than have direct contact or communication with her, Mr. Elonis elected to post words on the Internet, specifically on Social Media, which the other party interpreted as threatening and directed towards her. The words appeared to be serious and threatening. Mr. Elonis was arrested, for violating the PFA, after the posting of the words on Social Media was reported to the Police.

The protected party, believed the words were directed to her and were threatening. Her name was not mentioned in the words. She felt in fear for her safety. Mr. Elonis maintained that these words constitute free speech and that the protected person needs to prove that through the posting of these words, Mr. Elonis had the specific intent to threaten her with bodily injury. He maintains that these words were lyrics to “rap” songs and not threats towards her.

The issue to be resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court is whether, in cases such as these, the posting of words alone is enough, or must the person who feels threaten have to prove that the person who posted the words meant to threaten the other party.

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