The First Amendment is one of the major cornerstones of American life. Not many days go by where you don't hear the phrase "free speech" mentioned somewhere.
Of course, we know that "free speech" doesn't cover everything. As the old example goes, you can't shout "fire" in a crowded theater. Serious death threats or speech that puts other people in danger can also get you in trouble.
However, the big question in the digital age is how that applies online. In the past the government has cracked down on people making airplane bomb jokes before flying. It's hard to convey tone and context in writing, and when it comes to people's lives the government chooses to err on the side of caution.
Now the Supreme Court is diving into the topic of personal threats in Elonis v. United States. The verdict could change what people can and can't post online, and even how sites like Facebook work.
Let me give you the background.
A man named Anthony Elonis got in trouble after posting self-made rap lyrics on his Facebook page. The raps included threats to his wife - graphic descriptions of stabbing and shooting her - who had already taken out a protection order against him.
Elonis says the raps are therapeutic art and not serious. However, a lower court ruled that a reasonable person could interpret these as "true threats" and sentenced Elonis to four years in prison.
The Supreme Court now gets to decide whether the raps are protected art, and therefore free speech, or "true threats" and subject to jail time. If the Supreme Court does rule that the raps are "true threats," then people are worried it will lead to more censoring online.
Not only will people censor themselves to avoid trouble, it could open up sites like Facebook to legal trouble for creating a place where people can post threats. And, of course, there will always be people who are easily offended who will use this as a basis for filing unreasonable lawsuits.
That's why legal experts think the Supreme Court will stick to its usual practice and keep the definition of free speech as broad as possible, even if it protects speech that isn't good. Still, you never know what might happen. I'll keep you updated as the case unfolds.