The petitioner, Anthony Elonis, appealed his federal conviction for posting rap lyrics on his Facebook page that his ex-wife had found threatening. Elonis was convicted under a federal statute that makes it a crime to communicate “any threat to injure the person of another.” He was sentenced to 44 months.
CIR filed an amicus brief before the Supreme Court in support of Elonis. CIR urged the Court to rule that federal criminal statutes require proof of criminal intent unless Congress expressly stipulates otherwise. CIR argued that expansive federal criminal statutes encroach on the traditional responsibility of states to legislate crimes and therefore courts should not interpret those statutes expansively absent explicit Congressional intent to do so.
Elonis adopted the name of a fictitious rapper (“Tone Dougie”) and posted several rap songs that included violent images. He contended that he did not intend to threaten acts of unlawful violence (what the law calls “true threats”). He claimed that he was an aspiring rapper and that such “art is about pushing limits.” Several of the posts included disclaimers and other suggestions that they were not made in earnest.
The trial judge ruled that his subjective intent was irrelevant; the jury should convict Elonis, the judge said, if the lyrics would appear threatening to a reasonable person, whether or not Elonis himself meant to threaten anyone.