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Freedom of Expression Online

Freedom of Expression Online

The U.S. Supreme recently made groundbreaking news regarding freedom of expression on the Internet, overturning a lower court decision that had supported a prison sentence given to Anthony Elonis of Bethlehem, Pa., who, under the pseudonym "Tone Dougie," posted messages on Facebook about killing his estranged wife.

Elonis' defense was he wasn't serious and his posts were akin to rap music lyrics, and his lawyers argued the posts were a spontaneous form of expression that shouldn't be considered threatening because he didn't really mean it and they should receive protection under the First Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed and overturned the lower court's decision and a previous jury verdict and sided with Elonis, with seven justices voting to throw out the conviction, one voting to support it, and one voting to return the case to an appeals court. It held that Elonis couldn't be convicted merely on the basis of the words, even if a reasonable person might consider them threatening. The court ruled Elonis could be prosecuted only if he actually intended his words as threats.

Most of us have seen people lose control on Facebook and Twitter, on blogs and in discussion groups, and in emails and in texts, letting loose with angry rants, name-calling, cursing, threats, or attacks on another person's motivations, competence, lifestyle, or national, racial, or religious background.

The name for this type of activity is "flaming," and such words are called "flames." The Internet makes flaming more common than in other forms of discourse because you're separated from others by space and often by time.

But abusive discourse isn't unique to the Internet. Writers, who you might think would know better, are infamous for letting loose:

  • Mark Twain on Jane Austen: "Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone."
  • H.G. Wells on George Bernard Shaw: "An idiot child screaming in a hospital."
  • D.H. Lawrence on Herman Melville: "Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville."
  • Gustave Flaubert on George Sand: "A great cow full of ink."
  • Gore Vidal on Truman Capote: "He's a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices."
  • Friedrich Nietzsche on Dante: "A hyena who wrote poetry on tombs."
  • Oscar Wilde on Alexander Pope: "There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."
  • Gertrude Stein on Ezra Pound: "A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not."
  • Charles Baudelaire on Voltaire: "I grow bored in France - and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Voltaire ... the king of nincompoops, the prince of the superficial, the anti-artist."
  • Dylan Thomas on William Wordsworth: "Wordsworth was a tea-time bore, the great Frost of literature, the verbose, the humourless, the platitudinary reporter of Nature in her dullest moods."
  • Evelyn Waugh on Marcel Proust: "I am reading Proust for the first time. Very poor stuff. I think he was mentally defective."
  • Raymond Chandler on James M. Cain: "Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls."

Even though some of the above might be funny, and despite the Supreme Court's recent decision, you still should be careful online. In this litigious society, it's not difficult for someone for sue you for defamation, potentially causing you to have to spend serious money defending yourself.