The term freedom of speech gets tossed around often these days. For some, it is the de facto defense for statements made by everyone from “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson to ex-Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling and comedian-TV host Bill Maher.
It’s also an actual legal defense in the case of Elonis v. United States, which went before the Supreme Court this week.
For those not following the case, it involves an Allentown, Pa., man who was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison for threatening another person over interstate lines. Elonis argues the threats posted on Facebook were rap lyrics and, as such, should be protected speech.
Explicit is one description for the lyrics, in which Elonis threatens all sorts of mayhem, including the murder of his estranged wife and the shooting of a kindergarten class.
There is no shortage of examples of artists who have made careers that include songs about murder. Eminem is the one getting mentioned in this case — his lyrics were even read in court. The website Boston.com, in a commentary on the case, made a game of the songs, offering readers a set of rhymes and asking them to decide which are from the Elonis case, which are from Eminem’s “The Slim Shady LP” and which are European murder ballads. The similarities in the words and tone are striking.
Jailing a man for artistic expression — however misguided — seems to set bad precedent.
That said, it is illegal to threaten someone’s life and the case raises interesting questions about the definition of a threat, about violence in art and protecting lives versus protecting speech. That’s why the case made it to the Supreme Court.
More importantly, because the case involves statements made on Facebook, its outcome will likely determine the acceptable limits of speech on social media. Without sounding radical, it could be the beginning to the policing of your social media.
Not that policing isn’t already happening. Take the Tumblr site “ Racists Getting Fired,” for instance.
It is pretty much what the name implies. The site’s curator tracks down racist comments via social media (mostly Twitter and Facebook) and sets about getting the authors fired, by forwarding the evidence to their employers. It is a scary consequence of sharing on social media. Reading through the posts, one cringes at the hatred, vileness and ignorance on display — and also at the fact that a site like this exists at all.
The outcome of the Elonis case won’t change the underlying truth here: Words matter and speech (of all kinds) has consequences. First amendment protections are just that. Protections. They do not and should not release us from the consequences of what we say.
The NBA’s treatment of Sterling was not the First Amendment under fire. Nor was the First Amendment under attack when 1,400 Berkeley students signed a petition to have Maher disinvited from a commencement speech because of his take on the Muslim religion and violence. Or when the Dixie Chicks were blackballed way back in 2003.
Right or wrong, these were all cases of consequences of speech. Yes, there exists a freedom of speech in this country, but it is not blanketed. It comes with a catch, one that is exacerbated by the Internet.
So, say what you will. But be warned: Big Brother may not be watching (or reading), but someone probably is.