Takeaways From the Facebook Threat and Title VII Head Scarf Cases Handed Down by the Court This Week

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Posted in: Civil Rights

On Monday the Supreme Court handed down two cases, Elonis v. United States and EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch, that had received a lot of press in earlier stages of the litigations and that, judging from the briefs, posed important civil rights issues concerning freedom of speech and freedom of religion, respectively. Although the Court ended up resolving the two matters on relatively narrow grounds—disappointing some of the Justices as well as analysts—it is important to understand precisely what the Court did (and did not) hold in these two rulings, both of whose outcomes were decided by 8-1 votes. In the space below, I briefly discuss the two decisions individually and then side-by-side.

Elonis v. United States

Based on statements he posted on Facebook directed at, among others, his ex-wife, federal law enforcement officials, and school children, Anthony Elonis was convicted of violating federal criminal statutes that prohibit the interstate transmission of communications containing threats to injure other persons. For example, in referring to FBI officials (who had visited his home to interview him about his activities), Elonis wrote online (seemingly in rap-style cadence):

[T]he next time you know, you best be serving a warrant
And bring yo’ SWAT an explosives expert while you’re at it
Cause little did y’all know, I was strapped wit’ a bomb . . .
I was jus’ waitin’ for y’all to handcuff me and pat me down.
Touch the detonator in my pocket and we’re all goin’ BOOM!

In another posting, Elonis offered:

That’s it. I’ve had about enough.
I’m checking out and making a name for myself.
Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous shooting ever imagined. . .
The only question is. . . which one?

In entries about his wife, Elonis wrote: “There’s one way to love you but a thousand ways to kill you. I’m not going to rest until your body is a mess, soaked in blood and dying from all the little cuts. Hurry up and die, bitch . . . ” And so forth.

At Elonis’s criminal trial, the federal district judge instructed the jury that, for purposes of whether Elonis had issued threats prohibited by the statute, “[a] statement is a true threat [subject to prosecution] when a defendant intentionally makes a statement in a context or under such circumstances wherein a reasonable person would foresee that the statement would be interpreted by those to whom the maker communicates the statement as a serious expression of an intention to inflict bodily injury or take the life of an individual.” Elonis argued under both the First Amendment and also under the federal criminal statute he was charged with violating that, before a person can be punished for expressing a threat, the government must allege and prove that the defendant subjectively intended to threaten his victim. In other words, Elonis argued that the government needed to prove that he had some subjective state of mind with respect to the effect that his words would have on the individuals to whom they were directed, and not simply that he voluntarily uttered the words and should have known the effect those words would create.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for Third Circuit (along with a large number of other circuits) have rejected the idea that the First Amendment requires the government to prove any subjective state of mind in order to punish threats consistent with the First Amendment. Instead, the Third Circuit held that statements that are reasonably construed as threats by listeners can lawfully be punished. In contrast, the Ninth Circuit (and a number of state high courts) has read the First Amendment as requiring the proof of a subjective intent to threaten as a predicate to a prosecution for threatening speech.

When the Supreme Court granted review, most commentators expected it to weigh in on and resolve this divergence in the lower courts over what the First Amendment requires. But in its ruling three days ago, the Justices decided the case purely on the basis of the federal statute under which Elonis was prosecuted; the Court explicitly deferred any analysis or interpretation of First Amendment requirements. And under the federal statute at issue, the Court said, Elonis is correct that some subjective intent by the person uttering the alleged threat is required; negligence by the person issuing the threat (in the sense that he reasonably should have foreseen that his words would be interpreted as threatening) was not enough. Although Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion conceded that there is no intent standard written into the text of the federal statute, the Court nonetheless found one based on the way similar statutes had been construed. The Court did not specify precisely what level of intent the federal government must prove—and explicitly left open the question whether recklessness (a conscious disregard of a known risk that words could cause fear) is enough for the government to prove, or instead whether a higher form of intent such as actual knowledge is needed—but reversed Elonis’s conviction and sent the case back to the lower courts because negligence on his part was not adequate to support a conviction under the statute.

EEOC v. Abercrombie & Fitch

Samantha Elauf is a practicing Muslim who regularly wears a headscarf for religious reasons. When she applied for a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch (A&F) retail store, the A&F managers evaluating her candidacy declined to hire her because the wearing of head scarves violates an appearance (or “Look”) policy A&F has; employees in retail positions are prohibited from wearing caps and other headwear. Prior to their decision not to hire Ms. Elauf, the A&F managers had internal discussions about her in which one of the managers who had some acquaintance with Ms. Elauf expressed the belief that Ms. Elauf wore headscarves because of her faith.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission sued A&F on Ms. Elauf’s behalf, alleging that A&F had violated Title VII, which prohibits an employer from deciding not to hire an individual because of the individual’s religious observance or practice, unless the accommodating the observance or practice would create an undue hardship for the employer. A&F argued, and the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed, that A&F should not be liable because “ordinarily an employer cannot be liable under Title VII for failing to accommodate a religious practice until the applicant . . . provides the employer with actual knowledge of his need for an accommodation.”

The Supreme Court reversed. Justice Scalia, calling this a “really easy” case when he delivered the decision from the bench, authored the majority opinion which said a Title VII plaintiff need not show “actual knowledge [by the employer] of a conflict between an applicant’s religious practice and a work rule,” because requiring such actual knowledge would involve the Court “add[ing] words to the law to produce what is thought to be a desirable result [. . . , which] is Congress’s province.” He went on: “We construe Title VII’s silence [as to the requirement of actual knowledge] as exactly that: silence.”

But Justice Scalia did say that a Title VII plaintiff like Ms. Elauf had to show the employer’s adverse action against the applicant was based at least in significant measure on a motive to avoid the religious accommodation. But how can an employer be acting based on a motive to avoid accommodating an applicant’s religion practice—“because of” an applicant’s religious observances, in the language of Title VII—if the employer doesn’t know that the applicant’s conduct requiring an accommodation is itself religiously based? Justice Scalia acknowledged, in an important footnote, that it “is arguable that the motive requirement itself is not met unless the employer at least suspects that the practice in question is a religious practice,” but that issue need not be decided in the A&F case because it has not been briefed by either side and because A&F “knew or at least suspected that the scarf was worn for religious purposes.” Oddly enough, then, the majority opinion technically holds open the possibility that an employer who had no clue that a prospective employee’s likely non-compliance with a work rule was religiously motivated could be held liable under Title VII, a result that Justice Alito in his separate concurrence rightly calls “very strange” and “surely wrong.”

The Two Cases Taken Together

What can we say about these cases when we look at them in tandem? First, it is interesting that Justice Clarence Thomas is the lone dissenter in both decisions, and that he parted company with Justices Scalia and Alito (with whom he is often aligned as to result) on the interpretation of the federal threats statute and Title VII. Also, Justice Alito wrote separately for himself in both cases, decrying the minimalist nature of the majority’s holdings. So, in both Elonis and Abercrombie & Fitch, Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito each had a different take from one another.

Second, both majority opinions conclude that Congress had not fleshed out in the text of the statute in question a requirement as to the defendant’s subjective knowledge, but the Court reacted to that absence differently in the two cases. In Elonis, the Court said that because the statute is a criminal one, a wrongful state of mind on the part of the defendant should be found in the statute even when Congress was silent. But in Abercrombie & Fitch, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion insists (to the extent that one can separate motive from knowledge) that Congress’s silence as to the level of knowledge required of employers before they can be held liable is not something to be fixed by courts. The more ambitious attitude by the Court in the context of a criminal statute makes sense; there are special rules of statutory construction that apply particularly to laws that impose criminal sanctions.

But, and this is a third point, the criminal nature of the statute in Elonis might have properly led the Court to want to provide more notice to lower courts and potential defendants about precisely what level of subjective knowledge concerning the fear-inducing nature of words is required; the criminal law setting usually calls for clearer notice to be given to potential offenders. In particular, the disinclination by the Elonis majority to weigh in on whether recklessness by a defendant—e.g., a defendant who fleetingly wonders whether his proposed speech might cause fear in others but who never forms a view on the likelihood fear will in fact ensue—is sufficient under the statute, while perhaps understandable given absence of explicit lower court consideration of this matter, is sub-optimal. And, of course, because many statutes that criminalize threats are state statutes instead of federal laws, the question of whether and how the First Amendment requires government to prove any particular mental state of a defendant before criminal punishment may be imposed remains one on which the Supreme Court will need to give guidance. Indeed, in an earlier column I wrote previewing Elonis, I noted that it may not have been a good case in which to grant review precisely because the statutory ground could complicate the ability of the Court to give needed constitutional guidance. If this happened (as it did), I observed, the Court “would still need to rule in a later case on whether the First Amendment requires subjective intent (in the context of a federal or state statute that clearly does not require it.)”

The absence of guidance to lower courts and litigants in Abercrombie & Fitch is also quite frustrating, even though criminal liability was not at issue. On the facts of the Abercrombie & Fitch case, the employer “knew—or at least suspected—that the scarf was worn for religious purposes.” But the tougher situation arises when the employer doesn’t actually know but perhaps should be encouraged to find out, prior to declining to hire someone. For example, what if the A&F managers had no personal knowledge of Ms. Elauf during the interview process, but noted that she wore a head scarf and said to themselves, “Gee, I wonder if that is a style statement or a religious practice?” (In some respects, that could be thought of as “recklessness” but not knowledge on the part of the employer.)

Would the fact that the possibility of religious motivation even occurred to the employer be enough to trigger a requirement that the employer investigate the basis of the practice? Or would imposing such a duty on employers cause them to invade the religious privacy of employees and job applicants? (Courts in other countries that take religious liberty seriously often focus on religious privacy more than do American courts.) I do not know the answer to this, but I would observe that minority religious practices are often less well-known to many employers, a fact which might argue in favor of requiring employers to do some diligence once the possibility of a religiously inspired practice occurs to an employer. As for respecting privacy, there may be sensible ways to avoid making applicants feel uncomfortable. For example, all prospective employees could be given a list of all the employer’s work rules and then asked, as a matter of course, whether religious practices would require accommodations with respect to any such rules. But this precisely the kind of detail the majority in Abercrombie & Fitch did not want to wade into. The reason it was a “really easy” case for the Court is that the Justices shied away from the difficult matters that actually needed some clarification.

  • ingeborg oppenheimer

    “… [T]he question of whether and how the First Amendment requires government to
    prove any particular mental state of a defendant before criminal punishment may
    be imposed remains one on which the Supreme Court will need to give guidance[.]” How – short of some visible neurological pathway between words and thoughts – does one ascertain the presence or absence of subjective intent, whether in criminal or civil cases?