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Is a Threat on Facebook Really a Threat?

FILE - The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, as seen from the roof of the U.S. Capitol.

The Supreme Court is hearing a case about the free-speech rights of people who use violent or threatening language on social media.

The court is to hear arguments Monday in the case of a man sentenced to nearly four years in prison for posting violent rap lyrics on Facebook about killing his estranged wife, shooting up a class of young children and attacking an FBI agent.

A jury convicted Anthony Elonis of violating federal law by threatening another person. An appeals court rejected his claim that his comments were protected by the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech.

Elonis said he was just venting his anger over a broken marriage and never meant to threaten anyone. But the people mentioned as targets testified they felt threatened.

Prosecutors said his intentions do not matter if his words make a reasonable person feel threatened.

First Amendment

In the past, the Supreme Court has said "true threats" to harm another person are not protected speech under the First Amendment.

But free-speech advocates said comments on social media can be hasty, impulsive and easily misinterpreted.

They point out that a message on Facebook intended for a small group could be taken out of context when viewed by a wider audience.

In a Facebook post about his wife, Elonis used the pseudonym "Tone Dougie" to write, "There is one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I am not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts.''

Elonis said he is an amateur rapper inspired by Eminem, and these “threats” were not serious; they were just rap lyrics.

A decision in the case is expected by summer.

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