Growing (Legal) Pains for Social Networks

 

Half of all adults say they use social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or others, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center. That may not sound surprising until you consider that, six years ago when the Pew Research Center first did such a survey, only 5 percent of adults said they used social networking sites.

Baby Boomers (aged 50 – 64) still trail their younger counterparts (aged 18 – 29) in using the sites: 51 percent of Boomers use the sites vs. 89 percent of younger adults, with 69 percent using them every day.

Interesting side note: While only 13 percent of online users polled said they use Twitter, another Pew study published in June found that African-Americans were more likely than whites to use Twitter.

Certainly in my own household, Twitter and Facebook have become routine methods of communicating with friends and family, along with email and texting. During Hurricane Irene, Twitter was, not surprisingly, the main way to get up-to-the-moment updates, with the likes of the federal government planning to use such sites to offer information.

The New York Times Bits blog says, though, that email and search are still the main ways that people use the internet, with 61 percent saying they go online to check email, 59 to search and 43 percent for social networking. But people seem a bit undecided about how much they get out of social networking. While the most common word that people used to describe their social networking experience was “good,” people also used words like “boring,” “time-consuming” and “overrated” to describe their experience.

Certainly, along with the benefits and positives of using social media, there have been plenty of reports about their hazards. The New York Times describes a recent case in which a man named William Lawrence Cassidy has been accused of using multiple Twitter accounts to post over 8,000 menacing messages to Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist leader based in Maryland. Cassidy, who has a record of assault, arson and domestic violence, has been jailed on charges of online stalking. Zeoli, an avid Twitter user with over 23,000 followers, contends that Cassidy’s messages caused her “severe emotional distress” and led to her leave her home for 18 months and hire armed guards. One example of Cassidy’s tweets:

“Ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya. Long limb, sharp saw, hard drop.”

However, Cassidy’s lawyers with the federal public defender’s office point out that even such offensive, defamatory speech is protected by the First Amendment, when it is deployed through a public platform like Twitter:

Legal scholars say the case is significant because it grapples with what can be said about a person, particularly a public person like a religious leader, versus what can be said to a person.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, offered an analogy: the difference between harassing telephone calls and ranting from a street-corner pulpit. “When the government restricts speech to one person, the speaker remains free to speak to the public at large,” Mr. Volokh argued….

But the defense has taken pains to point out that across the Internet, people post things that may cause emotional distress to others: an unkind review of a book on Amazon, even an unvarnished assessment by a college student on RateMyProfessors.com. They point out, moreover, that Mr. Cassidy lived across the country in California and is not accused of getting anywhere close to Ms. Zeoli. He is now in jail in Maryland pending trial.

Just recently a huge outcry arose when UK Prime Minister David Cameron proposed banning those suspected of rioting from using social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and Blackberry messaging and when San Francisco’s BART transit system shut off cell service after learning about protests over the killing of a man by BART transit officers. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy organization based in San Francisco, has appealed to the court about Cassidy’s case:

“While not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, the idea that the courts must police every inflammatory word spoken online not only chills freedom of speech but is unsupported by decades of First Amendment jurisprudence.”

In view of the Pew Center’s report, it seems likely that the use of social networking will grow. But ethical and legal issues will only continue to arise and Cassidy’s case is a sign of these. As the New York Times asks:

Is posting a public message on Twitter akin to speaking from an old-fashioned soapbox, or can it also be regarded as a means of direct personal communication, like a letter or phone call?

 

Related Care2 Coverage

China Suspends Microbloggers’ Accounts

Arab World, What’s Better: Twitter or Facebook?

Do We Still Need the Postal Service?

Cameron’s Call To Ban Social Media: Echoes of Mubarak’s Internet Shutdown?

 

Photo by Josh Semans

29 comments

Kelly R.
Kelly R.4 years ago

(last half of my comment)

i stopped using Facebook, and i've found that i now cannot participate in "society" in many respects - i miss out on participation about news stories or special offers and information on consumer products. but my ability to participate in government cannot be taken away just because i choose not to use a particular social media site.

anyhow, the long and short of it is that Twitter and Facebook have the right, as private companies, to restrict speech or delete user accounts, because they are not government entities and can make special rules for their use. they aren't like social security numbers, participation is not mandatory.

Kelly R.
Kelly R.4 years ago

(last half of my comment)

i stopped using Facebook, and i've found that i now cannot participate in "society" in many respects - i miss out on participation about news stories or special offers and information on consumer products. but my ability to participate in government cannot be taken away just because i choose not to use a particular social media site.

anyhow, the long and short of it is that Twitter and Facebook have the right, as private companies, to restrict speech or delete user accounts, because they are not government entities and can make special rules for their use. they aren't like social security numbers, participation is not mandatory.

Kelly R.
Kelly R.4 years ago

(this may be broken up into more than one comment if i am over the word count, because i don't know the word count on here but i often go over it.)

i think a lot of people get confused about these things: the use of social media sites is not a "right," as they are not government run. so they have every right to restrict the use of any kind of speech - if you don't like Facebook or Twitter's rules, you don't have to use their service. the first amendment is about *government* censorship, not private business. a lot of people don't understand that.

that is also why private businesses are allowed to hire and fire at will in most states, for any reason they want, whereas government agencies have to go through a lot of steps to insure they are not being prejudicial.

the thing about BART is *totally* different: they accept government money, therefore they cannot restrict free speech or, as stated in the article on here about them, take away your right to peaceably assemble. HOWEVER, i think their reasoning may be that, you have the right to free speech and assembly, *but* you don't necessarily have the "right" to use your phone to do it. that is similar to airlines and doctors' offices asking you to turn off your cell phones - not exactly alike, but similar. you have no Constitutional right to use a phone.

people really need to understand the limitations of the Constitution and public use of private space (such as malls and social media sites).

i stopped using Facebo

joan g.
scarlett g.4 years ago

being somewhat anonymous one will feel able to express more freely ...... maybe go overboard with lack of restraint but, on the other hand, probably deal similarly in person.....it takes all kinds...and judging from some of the posts,,,,they are out there!!!!!!

Judith Corrigan
Judith Corrigan4 years ago

Speech,Twitter,Facebook or any other form of communication is a reflection of the people that use it.Some good,some bad.

K s Goh
KS Goh4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Susan T.
Susan T.4 years ago

Sorry but threatening to cut off someone's limbs IS "threatening speech".

I had problems with a neighbor harassing me for a while and even went to the police. They told me all they could do was try to get us into mediation if he had not threatened me with physical harm - but if he had threatened physical harm, they could take action (they would go question the guy and tell him to stay away from me, I could get a restraining order, etc.)

8000 threatening messages? That is not free speech. This sicko is going to jail.Good riddance.

Carole H.
Carole H.4 years ago

I think this man´s defense team are stretching it a bit to use analogies such as 'an unkind review of a book' etc. as if the emotional distress that might cause, presumably the author, was on a par with the 8,000 messages posted by their client to this women mentioning such things as cutting off limbs etc. As Vance D. says 'the real issue is what constitutes threatening speech' I personally consider chopping off limbs threatening and it is of little comfort for the woman concerned to hear now that he lived a long way away - by the nature of the internet he could be anywhere from the other side of the world to her next door neighbour, and that is the frightening thing they are anonymous.
It is one thing to be critical of
someone or of their work but quite another to threaten them and I do not think you need a law degree to work that one out.

William K.
William K.4 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Arjen Lentz
Arjen Lentz4 years ago

In other countries (such as The Netherlands), the boundaries of a person's freedoms (including speech) are where they infringe on other people's freedoms. I think that works very well and invokes a sense of responsibility for your words/actions rather than an "anything goes".

Expressions of hatred or threats/incitement of violence are in my opinion clear cases where a person should not be able to hide behind a "freedom of speech/expression" claim. It does not serve society (or even the individual) to allow that kind of thing to go on, so why let it? I don't believe politicians and other media figures should get that kind of leeway, either.

I don't believe it's something that should need to be litigated on every infringement, the US is way too focused on "sue them". Punishment is after the fact, harm has already been done.
Inciting violence should become socially unacceptable, and people will refrain from it.