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?
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