The Supreme Court ruled in favor today of a man who claimed his online threats were artistic expressions meant to help him deal with depression, CNN reports. Anthony Elonis said his posts, written in the style of rap lyrics, weren't really serious—although they threatened his estranged wife, local schools, and law enforcement officers. "There's one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you," went one post; "Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined," read another. He was sentenced to 44 months on four counts in 2011 and finished his sentence a year ago, USA Today reports, but today's ruling overturned that conviction.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said it's wrong to base the ruling on whether a reasonable person would deem a message threatening, the Wall Street Journal reports. To Roberts, it's about the mind of the accused: "What Elonis thinks does matter," he writes. He adds elsewhere that "wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal," per SCOTUSblog. But Justice Clarence Thomas, who dissented, said the ruling leaves courts "to guess at the appropriate mental state" needed for conviction. The ruling is based on a criminal statute rather than the First Amendment, so it won't apply to free-speech cases, notes USA Today, but the Journal says it could make prosecution of online threat-makers more difficult. The ACLU hailed the court's decision, saying it upholds the notion that the government must "prove criminal intent before putting someone in jail."