Don’t get alarmed by what you hear about the Supreme Court’s decision in the case involving a Facebook post. True, the Court overturned the conviction of the man who posted this:
That’s it, I’ve had about enough. I’m checking out and making a name for myself. Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined. Hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class. The only question is…..which one?
The Court (seven of the nine) overturned the man’s conviction because the jury was given the wrong instructions. The jury was told that the man’s intent was not relevant, that he could be found guilty as long as “a reasonable person” would find this language to be a threat. Since the Court deemed this to be a serious legal error, they reversed the man’s conviction.
If you are like me, you hear about cases like this and wonder what they mean for your typical public school administrator. Let’s just suppose that you find words like this on a social media site, and you know that the words are from 1) a teacher; 2) a local adult citizen or 3) a student. Does this Supreme Court case means that your hands are tied?
Absolutely not. It’s important to recognize that the man in the Supreme Court case was appealing a criminal conviction. In that context—and only in that context—the Court held that the prosecution must prove what the man thought he was doing. The Court said that the “reasonable person” standard “is a familiar feature of civil liability in tort law.” But it is not appropriate for a criminal conviction.
If you are dealing with a teacher, or a student, your first response will probably be disciplinary—either adverse personnel action or a student discipline penalty. This Supreme Court case would not be relevant in those contexts.
If language like this is posted by a citizen, we expect you will contact law enforcement and your school attorney. If county prosecutors seek to file criminal charges, they will have to study this case carefully. But there are other avenues of recourse available.
The case is Elonis v. United States, decided by the Supreme Court on June 1, 2015. Justice Alito concurred in part and dissented in part; Justice Thomas dissented. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion, and was joined by Scalia, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan.
DAWG BONE: KINDA NICE TO SEE THE LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES COME TOGETHER ON THIS ONE