SCOTUS Rules on Violent Rap Lyrics Case

By Sameer Rao Jun 01, 2015

In their second 8-1 ruling today, the Supreme Court voted in favor of defendant Anthony Elonis’s right to post violent lyrics on social media and it overturned a federal conviction against the Pennsylvania man.

In 2010, Elonis took to Facebook under the moniker “Tone Dougie” and posted what the court’s ruling describes as “self-styled rap lyrics containing graphically violent language and imagery concerning his wife, co-workers, a kindergarten class, and state and federal law enforcement.” Elonis’ posts, which contained disclaimers that the lyrics were “fictitious” and protected under the First Amendment, prompted his then-estranged wife (the end of their relationship allegedly inspired Elonis to post the lyrics) to file for a state protection order against him, as well as for his then-employer to fire him. After the employer alerted the FBI to the content of his posts, Elonis was arrested and charged with five counts of transmitting in interstate commerce "any communication containing any threat . . . to injure the person of another."

During federal proceedings, Elonis sought to be judged as to whether or not his lyrics, which he saw as therapeutic and protected freedom of speech, had expressed “true intent” to commit the crimes he described; today, the Supreme Court agreed with him. In a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court majority said the following: 

"The jury was instructed that the Government need prove only that a reasonable person would regard Elonis’s communications as threats, and that was error. Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state.” 

In a partial-concurrence/partial-dissent, Samuel Alito worried about the impact of the ruling, which takes the case back to the lower courts for further review, saying: “We granted review in this case to resolve a disagreement among the Circuits. But the Court has compounded—not clarified—the confusion.” Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, concurred with Alito on this point.

Click here to read the full ruling.