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Elonis v. United States (2014) Case Study

"My Constitutional Law students have been more engaged, and interested, in this case than any other case we covered in my 4 years of teaching the course.  Pretty easy to see why: Facebook posts, references to Eminem songs in case briefs, and some pretty outrageous online posts by the petitioner.  The ramifications of this case and potential ruling, in a 21st century digital world, are extremely significant to free speech rights...one area of jurisprudence that any high school student would have a strong opinion on."

The Supreme Court of the United States has interpreted the First Amendment to contain several categorical exceptions to the Free Speech Clause. These types of speech are not protected by the First Amendment, and the government can penalize or punish a speaker for communicating in these ways. One categorical exception is “true threats.”

But what exactly is a “true threat?” How do we measure or test for it? The Supreme Court has not specifically said whether a “true threat” requires the speaker to have a specific intent to threaten the listener, or, instead, whether it merely requires the speaker to reasonably know that a listener would perceive the communication as a threat.

This case tests whether the “true threats” exception to the First Amendment contains a specific intent requirement. These materials provide the background knowledge students need to fully understand the constitutional issue at hand.

Audience: High School (9-12)

Topic: Supreme Court/Judicial Branch

Teaching Strategy: Case Study, Controversial Issues, Cooperative Learning/Small Group Work, Discussion/Deliberation, Moot Court, Problem-Based Learning, Questioning Strategies, Town Hall Meeting

US Constitution: Bill of Rights (Amendments I-X), 1st Amendment

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