TRANSCRIPT: A Thousand Ways to Kill You
He called it artistic expression. The government called it a threat. When does free speech go too far?
NINA TOTENBERG: I see a lot of cases involving somebody who commits a horrific crime against his wife and/or children. And there are lots of warning signs and these are the warning signs. Language like this is the warning sign.
How do you balance the right to free speech — in this very typical situation involving domestic, at least terror if not violence — and try to make sure there isn't a murder?
MIKE: Not all speech is constitutionally protected. Some speech — the kind that makes someone fear for their life — that can get you arrested. That can get you sent to prison.
ELONIS: "There's one way to love you, but 1,000 ways to kill you, and I'm not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts." It's distasteful. The more people have told me that I couldn't do it, the more that I wanted to do it. To push the buttons.
MATT: Today on the show: He called it artistic expression. The government called it a threat. When is speech a red flag? I’m Matthew Schwartz.
MIKE: I’m Mike Vuolo.
MATT: And this… is Unprecedented.
MATT: In 2001, Anthony Elonis met Tara on the internet. They were both teenagers, living in eastern Pennsylvania.
ELONIS: My name is Anthony Douglas Elonis. I met Tara actually online. I believe it was Geocities. She had a site called Moles Turn Me On. She has a mole right here. So that's how I found Tara. I remember the first time we met, we were going to the movies.
VUOLO: What movie did you see?
ELONIS: Crazy/Beautiful. Then we hung out at Walmart. That was our first just being together.
VUOLO: Do you remember what you thought when you first saw her?
ELONIS: I thought she was beautiful. I still remember the first time I laid eyes on her. It was just like radiating. She was sitting on the sidewalk. I believe it was instantaneous in terms of my feelings for her.
MIKE: The two were married in the fall of 2002 by a magistrate judge. They did not have a reception.
ELONIS: We did the justice of the peace thing. She was 16 — I was 19 — so I had to get her parents' permission. She was already pregnant with our son. I mean, I had felt guilty because, you know, every man wants to give his wife the wedding. There's some measure of guilt there. I did love her.
MATT: We really wanted to hear this story from Tara’s perspective too. We left voicemails and text messages, but we never heard back. What you’re hearing now, of course, is Anthony’s version.
ELONIS: We got married on Eminem's 30th birthday. October 17th, 2002.
She testified at court that I never listened to rap music, and that's a lie. My sister will tell you that one of my punishments growing up was to have my albums taken away.
VUOLO: What albums were they?
ELONIS: Big Pun, Ruff Ryders, obviously you have Eminem. My Name Is, you know, his first major release. I bought his album, I listened to him ever since. It's an artist that I related to. It's an artist that my ex-wife, in the past, has related to.
MIKE: Anthony and Tara were married for about seven years before things started falling apart. Anthony says he was spending too much time at work. Too much time partying. And, when they argued, he was cruel.
VUOLO: Do you feel like you were verbally abusive to her?
ELONIS: I think so, yes. When things don't go my way, I tend to not handle that very well. If we're having an argument, I tend to go for the jugular. I'll use — anything that I know that you feel weak about, I'll use that against you. So, I can understand why she left.
VUOLO: It sounds like when you're arguing with somebody, you try to wound them.
VUOLO: Do you remember the day in, I think it was 2010, when she told you that she was leaving and taking the kids?
ELONIS: I believe it was May 10th. I came home and she had loaded her belongings onto a trailer on her dad's truck. She told me that I had told her that she can dish it out but she can't take it, and that in actuality I'm the one that can dish it out and not take it. Talking about, just generally, verbal abuse.
VUOLO: So you’re now in this house that you lived in.
ELONIS: Apartment, yeah.
VUOLO: Apartment that you lived in with her and your kids, and suddenly you're there…
VUOLO: What was that like?
ELONIS: Yeah, that was probably the worst — just coming home from work, doing that shift, and, you know, the sound of the kids not being there. I mean that, that wore on me. And then, when I could no longer afford to live there — ’cuz I've always relied on two incomes — when I couldn't afford that, having to move back in with my parents, that was a shock after having had a family.
VUOLO: You keep alluding to your job. What were you doing at the time, tell me what you were doing, where you were working.
ELONIS: I worked seasonally for Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom. The year 2010, I was a department supervisor in the rides department. I worked up until October of 2010, and I was fired.
MATT: A coworker at the park had posed with Elonis during a Halloween event. He was dressed in costume and he held a toy knife to her throat. It was a joke. But he then had a falling out with the coworker and posted the photo online with the caption: “I wish.” The park ended his employment.
VUOLO: How low did you get, mentally?
ELONIS: Pretty low. Pretty low. I wasn't really sleeping. I hadn't slept for three days. I was definitely doing drugs. I was definitely drinking. Definitely wasn't sleeping. That doesn't mean that I didn't have a understanding of what I was doing.
VUOLO: You obviously weren't dealing with this in the best way at first.
VUOLO: You were using drugs and alcohol to, I guess, self-medicate, right?
VUOLO: But then, at some point, you took on this alter ego that you called…
ELONIS: Tone Dougie.
VUOLO: Tone Dougie. This was a sort of rap alter ego. And you started writing rap lyrics as Tone Dougie as, I suppose, what you thought was a healthier way to deal with the sadness and the pain of losing your family. Correct me if I'm wrong.
MATT: Tone Dougie never actually recorded anything. He never laid down tracks. He mostly just posted lyrics online, on his Facebook page. According to Anthony Elonis, Tone Dougie was therapeutic.
ELONIS: I mean, it had a lot of purposes. One of them, and I tried to explain this to the jury, but Stephen King had wrote an essay, a introductory foreword to the Bachman books, where he wrote as Richard Bachman. And he had described the benefit to having the ability to have this alter ego, that he could recognize that he had these elements of himself, and he had a way to channel that. I think it's very important to have a way for us to channel our creative energy, and that may not look the same to everyone.
VUOLO: One of the subjects that Tone Dougie rapped about was his — your — ex-wife, Tara. Do you remember, and can you recite, one of those raps?
ELONIS: "There's one way to love you, but 1,000 ways to kill you, and I’m not gonna rest …”
TOTENBERG: “... and I'm not gonna rest until your body is a mess … “
MIKE: Nina Totenberg covered this story for NPR.
TOTENBERG: “… soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch."
ELONIS: "Hurry up and die, bitch, so I can bust this nut all over your corpse from atop your shallow grave." It's distasteful. And I'm not going to go into it, because I'm not — I’m not happy with the content. Because I do feel remorse, ’cuz I did love her.
TOTENBERG: And then his wife, Tara, went to court and they had a hearing and she got a protective order barring him from coming anywhere near her or their children. And just three days after the court hearing, he posted another Facebook message: "Did you know that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?"
MIKE: Elonis was actually riffing on a bit from a sketch comedy group called the Whitest Kids You Know:
TWKYK: Did you know that it’s illegal to say ‘I want to kill the president of the United States of America?’ It’s illegal, it’s a federal offense. It’s one of the only sentences that you’re 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 to say…
MIKE: Elonis changed the words so that instead of the president, he was talking about his wife.
TOTENBERG: A week later he posted this about his wife: "Fold up your protective order and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?" And the next day he said he was ready to, quote, "make a name" for himself with the most heinous elementary school shooting ever imagined.
ELONIS: They took my kids away because of stuff I put on Facebook. Like, I feel I have a right to say this. I feel that even though you disagree with me, you don’t — there is no heckler veto. You can't tell me not to say that. The more people told me that I couldn't do it, the more that I wanted to do it, to push the buttons. I remember waking up in the middle of the night. The school shooting one, that was just something I woke up, and was like, that was middle of the night.
SCHWARTZ: Do you remember why, like what was going on at the time?
ELONIS: You know, I grew up on a lot of macabre themes. You know, as awful as it is, it was something I wrote, that's violence against children, and it's something that's out there in the, in entertainment.
SCHWARTZ: So, when you wrote that …
ELONIS: It's something that should never happen.
SCHWARTZ: So, when you wrote that, you weren't planning on shooting up a school?
ELONIS: Umm… no. No.
SCHWARTZ: It was just…
SCHWARTZ: …like a violent fantasy just for—
ELONIS: It was adopting that psyche, and with the disclaimers that that's what I was doing.
TOTENBERG: That post got the attention of FBI agent Denise Stevens, who visited Elonis at home afterwards with her partner. And then he posted this message: "Little agent lady stood so close, took all the strength I had not to turn the bitch ghost.”
ELONIS: “Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat. Leave her bleeding from her jugular in the arms of her partner." That would be Little Agent Lady.
VUOLO: Little Agent Lady being one of the FBI agents that knocked on your door.
ELONIS: Well, I mean, I don't want to say yes. I mean, it could have been any situation involving someone from law, well, agent, FBI, DEA, whatever. It was written out of the meeting, but that doesn't mean that it needs to be read as that specific agent. It doesn't need to be read like that.
MATT: But it was read like that. And it was one threat too many. Elonis was arrested and charged with violating Section 875(c) of the United States Criminal Code, which prohibits making "any communication containing a threat to injure another person."
MIKE: The government didn’t care that Elonis made some of these threats under his rap alter ego, Tone Dougie. The government also didn’t care that Elonis linked to the Wikipedia page on freedom of speech. They did care that he violated the law.
TOTENBERG: So, he was prosecuted for these threats and convicted by a jury. The judge instructed the jury that, to convict, it must find that the Facebook posts constituted "true threats," meaning that in context, a reasonable person would foresee that the statements would be interpreted as a serious expression of an intent to inflict bodily harm or bodily injury. And so he was convicted and sentenced to three-and-a-half years. And he said, "Look, I was just venting. There are disclaimers all over the page saying, ‘I'm just venting.’"
SCHWARTZ: In fact, he linked to the Wikipedia entry on free speech.
TOTENBERG: Yeah. And he said,"This is venting. Don't take this seriously. Therefore, it's not a violation of the law.” It's an expression of his free speech.
MIKE: Again, I tried to contact Anthony Elonis’s ex-wife Tara. We really wanted to know how all of this had affected her, and her children — how it may have changed them. No response. We confided to Nina that we were disappointed.
TOTENBERG: But you see, she just wants to be left alone. She's afraid of him. And, I am sure, she doesn't want to do anything that will provoke him. And he has lots of rationalizations and these are very post-hoc rationalizations. We'll never know whether he was using the First Amendment as a cover and what he really was trying to do was scare the bejesus out of her; whether he was doing both — both expressing himself and trying to scare the bejesus out of her. But whatever he says now is not a valid explanation, in my view.
ELWOOD: There was a lot to indicate that he just viewed himself as a First Amendment sort of activist.
MIKE: This is John Elwood. He was Anthony Elonis’s attorney through much of the case.
ELWOOD: You know, in the sort of days after he had lost his job and his wife, I think that he found some appeal in giving his life meaning by being sort of a First Amendment advocate. That's my armchair psychology.
ELONIS: I believe that there exists a line between protected and unprotected speech, and that we need citizens to get to that line to prevent the government from moving it. So, it was important for me to do that. Because they'll continue to move it until there's no room for any discourse. I remember watching The People vs. Larry Flynt and I thought that I could do that. I thought that I could do that. So, I had researched “true threats.” I knew there was a potential for a Supreme Court case, and I latched onto it.
MATT: Coming up, Anthony Elonis spent three-and-a-half years in prison for his Facebook posts. Did he get what he deserved?
MIKE: Or did he get locked up for exercising his First Amendment right to vent?
MATT: Stick around.
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