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Internet crime conviction overturned on appeal

Many readers are aware of a high-profile case that has been making its way through the appeals process. The case centers on a Pennsylvania man who was convicted under a law than bans sending interstate communications that include a threat of harm to another person. The communications in question were online rants posted on the social media site Facebook. For many people, the Internet crime case is important, as it rests on the First Amendment right to free speech.

The man posted a series of comments and song lyrics that contained violent language. He aimed many of those comments toward his ex-wife. In one message, he spoke about not being able to rest until his wife's body was soaked with blood and dying. In another, he spoke about a protective order that his former wife was able to receive, asking if it was thick enough to stop a bullet.

In convicting him, the court felt that those comments were sufficient to serve as threats of actual violence, and that a reasonable person would feel threatened upon reading the statements. However, when the case went before the U.S. Supreme Court, the issue of whether an individual actually feels threatened was the topic of debate. The higher court found that simply inspiring fear in another is not sufficient to result in a conviction. Furthermore, the court ruled that simply making violent comments is not the same thing as exhibiting awareness of wrongdoing.

A representative from the American Civil Liberties Union claims that the Supreme Court outcome is a win for free speech. Specifically, the ruling is viewed as recognition that the government must prove criminal intent in order to convict an individual on charges related to free speech. While it remains illegal to communicate direct threats of violence, the fact that the man's comments were posted on a social media site may have been key to the decision to return the matter to the lower court.

As a result of his conviction in this Internet crime matter, the man was sentenced to serve four years in federal prison; he was released last year. The lower court will take another look at the case, and could hold another trial in the matter. However, the Pennsylvania man's legal team is confident that the end result of this case will be vindication, as well as a strong statement about the right to free speech.

Source: 6abc.com, "Conviction of Pa. man for Facebook threats thrown out", June 1, 2015

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