Author Archive | Brooks Fuller

Meeting Nina Totenberg

Senior NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg did not begin her 50-year career in broadcast journalism thinking she would cover the Supreme Court. But in the early 1970s, Totenberg, then with the National Observer, was assigned to cover the highest court in the land and she has been the go-to source for goings-on at SCOTUS ever since.totenberg

I had the honor of meeting Ms. Totenberg Tuesday, September 20, 2016, when she visited UNC for the annual Frey Foundation Distinguished Lecture. She regaled the capacity crowd in Memorial Hall with tales from her decades of dogged reporting. She recalled meeting a young Ruth Bader Ginsberg — whom she called “the female Thurgood Marshall” — and following her rise to seniority and influence on the Court.

Guided by UNC School of Law professor Michael Gerhardt’s incisive questions, Totenberg described in vibrant and poignant terms how politics influence the Court’s composition. She critiqued both Democrat and Republican attempts to tip the balance of the Court along political, ideological lines, citing the failed confirmation of Robert Bork and the controversy surrounding President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland.

Following the lecture, UNC Chancellor Carol Folt, and administrators, faculty and students from the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Media and Journalism, and the School of Law joined Totenberg for dinner and conversation. Dinner offered us an intimate look into the public and personal lives of the justices through Totenberg’s eyes.  At dinner, Totenberg’s stories took on additional life. She described in heartfelt anecdotes the occasionally fiery but always collegial relationship between Justice Ginsberg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia, whom she affectionately called “Nino.” The guests appeared to hang on Totenberg’s every word, relishing the opportunity to learn from the most seasoned legal correspondent to ever cover the Court.


United States Supreme Court decides Facebook true threats case

The Supreme Court has issued its long-awaited opinion in Elonis v. United States, the Facebook threats case. In a narrow opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court overturned the conviction of Anthony Elonis, who allegedly threatened his ex-wife and federal law enforcement agents through rap lyrics he posted to his Facebook page under personal hip-hop moniker “Tone Dougie.”

The government closed oral argument by emphasizing that “what [Elonis] thinks doesn’t matter.” The Supreme Court, on the other hand, said it does. Specifically, the Court held that in order to successfully prosecute a defendant under the federal interstate threats statute, 18 U.S.C. 875(c), the government must show that the defendant acted with a criminally culpable mental state beyond mere negligence. The Court rejected the notion that a criminal threats conviction could rest solely on proof that a hypothetical reasonable person would find that a statement amounted to a true threat.

The trouble with the opinion issued by the Court in Elonis — and with the current landscape of federal law on true threats — is that it remains unclear exactly what state of mind the law requires. The majority in Elonis expressly declined to decide whether recklessness is sufficient. Furthermore, section 18 U.S.C. 875(c) does not explicitly set forth a requisite mental state, so Elonis could trigger a legislative response by Congress. Lawmakers could shore up the language in 875(c) and explicitly define the mental state greater required for criminal threats convictions. The ball is in Capitol Hill’s court.

So what about the First Amendment?

The Court declined to address the First Amendment argument made by Elonis at trial and on appeal — that the Constitution requires the government to prove that the defendant specifically intended to threaten an identifiable person or group of persons when he communicated the threat. Justices Alito and Thomas chastised the majority for avoiding the constitutional question, but we saw this coming. When the Court granted certiorari in Elonis, it asked the parties to brief and argue the statutory interpretation question even though Elonis appealed solely on First Amendment grounds.

If there is anything we can infer about free speech jurisprudence from the Supreme Court’s holding in Elonis, it is that courts must look beyond the mere content of the purported threat and scrutinize the defendant’s behaviors for indicia of a criminal state of mind. Under Elonis, the hypothetical reasonable person may no longer be the sole arbiter of criminal speech determinations under 875(c). This standard provides some additional breathing space for threatening speech and heightens the importance of context. Nevertheless, artists, lawyers, and scholars are left wondering whether the First Amendment protects violence-laden speech uttered recklessly and without regard for foreseeable emotional and psychological harms to victims.

Brooks Fuller is a 3rd-Year Ph.D. student in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication.


Center Co-Director Authors New Media Law Casebook


David Ardia, co-director of the UNC Center for Media Law and Policy, is a co-author of a new edition of Media and the Law, a casebook published by LexisNexis. Congratulations, David!

The book is authored by David Kohler, Lee Levine, Ardia, Dale Cohen and Mary-Rose Papandrea.  Ardia, an assistant professor in the UNC School of Law, is a new author on the book beginning with this edition.

This marketing flyer talks about what is new in the second edition and includes a table of contents.  If you are so inclined, you can order the book here.


United States Supreme Court to hear Facebook true threats case

For the first time since the now-famous Virginia v. Black (2003) cross-burning case, the Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in a “true threats” case. Commentators expect the Court to clarify confusion that has arisen among the federal circuit courts regarding whether the First Amendment requires courts to consider the speaker’s subjective intent when prosecuting the speaker under a criminal threat statute. The case, Elonis v. United States, also presents the Court with an opportunity to determine whether the true threats doctrine has evolved along with modes of online communication.

Elonis involves a defendant who was convicted in federal district court under title 18, section 875(c) of the United States Code, which criminalizes the transmission of a threatening communication in interstate commerce, including over the Internet. Anthony Elonis posted to his Facebook wall a series of posts that made references to rap lyrics by artist Eminem and a sketch comedy routine that satirized threats against political figures. The posts also used violent imagery and language to describe Elonis’s disdain for his wife, who had recently left him and taken custody of the couple’s two children. One of Elonis’s posts read as follows:

“Did you know that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?

It’s illegal.
It’s indirect criminal contempt.

It’s one of the only sentences that I’m not allowed to say.
Now it was okay for me to say it right then because I was just telling you that it’s illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife.

I’m not actually saying it.
I’m just letting you know that it’s illegal for me to say that.
It’s kind of like a public service.
I’m letting you know so that you don’t accidently go out and say something like that
Um, what’s interesting is that it’s very illegal to say I really, really think someone out there should kill my wife.…

I also found out that it’s incredibly illegal, extremely illegal, to go on Facebook and say some- thing like the best place to fire a mortar launcher at her house would be from the cornfield behind it because of easy access to a getaway road and you’d have a clear line of sight through the sun room. Insanely illegal.

Ridiculously, wrecklessly [sic], insanely illegal.

Yet even more illegal to show an illustrated diagram.


===[ __ ] =====house :::::::::::::::^





#########################getaway road


Insanely illegal.
Ridiculously, horribly felonious.”

Elonis followed that post with a link to a YouTube video posted by sketch comedy troupe the Whitest Kids U Know. The post tracked the language of the YouTube video nearly verbatim, evoking its cadence and core message, but focused on Elonis’s wife rather than the President. Another post purportedly made reference to Eminem’s song “I’m Back,” in which Eminem criticized his ex-wife and fantasized about participating in a school shooting.

Throughout the trial, Elonis, who adopted the online rap moniker “Tone Dougie,” testified that Facebook operated as a forum for venting his frustrations and anxieties about his home life. Elonis testified that he was not Facebook friends with his wife and that he never tagged her in the posts. He has always claimed that he lacked any specific intent to threaten her life.

At the heart of Elonis v. United States is the meaning of a key phrase in Justice O’Connor’s majority opinion in Virginia v. Black. Justice O’Connor stated that a true threat occurs when a speaker “means to communicate” a serious expression of an intent to commit an act of unlawful violence. But does this language require the prosecution to prove that someone like Anthony Elonis subjectively intended to threaten his wife or merely that he meant to distribute a communication some reasonable person would regard as a true threat?

In clarifying Justice O’Connor’s language, the Court may raise profound questions about how social media either facilitate or cloud the meaning, whether threatening or non-threatening, intended by speakers who use social media for catharsis.

If the Court imposes a subjective intent standard on all true threats statutes, then a defendant’s fondness for Eminem’s violent lyrics or anti-establishment comedy sketches becomes increasingly relevant and allows the jury to consider the meaning underlying cultural tropes such as gangster rap that frequently evoke violent imagery for expressive, artistic purposes.

If the Court follows the majority of the federal circuit courts and upholds the objective reasonable person standard as the only constitutional requirement under Black, then it would seem to signal that speakers in open Internet forums bear the responsibility for all reasonable interpretations of their incendiary posts, even when they lack the specific intent to threaten.

Elonis also advances the theoretical discussion of how social media create and sustain connections between speakers and listeners even when individual posts are not directed at certain persons or groups. Facebook operates as a communication ecosystem that thrives on “shares” and “likes.” The community decides the reach and value of speech, and the online community is empowered to distort the speaker’s intent and the message’s context. The Supreme Court now has an opportunity to decide whether intent matters in determining whether a speaker should bear criminal responsibility for planting a message in the Facebook ecosystem that may be palatable to some users and poisonous to others.


Brooks Fuller is a Roy H. Park Fellow and Ph.D Student at the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Follow him on Twitter at @itsPBrooks