The headline on Kashmir Hill’s Forbes article says it all: “You have a constitutional right to stalk and harass people on twitter.” Over a period of more than 18 months, Buddhist leader Alyce Zeoli received 8,000 harassing and threatening tweets from William Lawrence Cassidy. In 2010, Zeoli reported the harassment to the FBI and pressed charges. On Thursday, a federal judge dismissed the case, saying that “uncomfortable” speech on sites like twitter is protected by the Constitution.
Long, Calculated, Unrelenting Harassment
Zeoli and Cassidy met and became friendly in 2007, but eventually had a falling out. Then, starting in 2008, Cassidy began harassing Zeoli on twitter and on blogs, using a variety of different pseudonyms. The Forbes article provides an overview of the harassment:
From 2008 to 2010, a man named William Lawrence Cassidy tweeted at Buddhist leader Alyce Zeoli over 8,000 times, using the micro-messaging forum to criticize her looks, criticize Buddhism, describe cinematic ways that she could die and to tell her to commit suicide . Every time Zeoli blocked one of the accounts, Cassidy would create a new username.
Forbes also printed a sampling of the tweets (warning: offensive language) from the court evidence. The impact on Zeoli was severe. She was afraid to leave her house for more than 18 months because she thought Cassidy would hurt her.
Cassidy Arrested, but Case Later Dismissed
On Mashable, Todd Wasserman describes how Cassidy went from being arrested and jailed to having the charges against him dismissed:
Zeoli cooperated with the FBI, which had Cassidy indicted and put in jail in February on interstate stalking charges, a statute of the Violence Against Women Act. Cassidy sought to dismiss the indictment on the grounds that it violated the First Amendment. The judge in the case, Roger W. Titus, agreed with Cassidy’s assertion, concluding that the First Amendment “protects speech even when the subject or the manner of expression is uncomfortable and challenges conventional religious beliefs, political attitudes or standards of good taste.” Titus also cited the fact that Zeoli is a public figure (she was the subject of a book published in 2000) and ruled that Cassidy’s remarks didn’t constitute a “true threat.”
For her part, Zeoli is incredibly upset about the ruling. In an e-mail, Zeoli’s lawyer Shanlon Wu wrote that his client was “appalled and frightened by the judge’s ruling” (source: New York Times). They have not yet decided whether they will appeal the ruling.
Judge Misunderstands Twitter
The judge in the case appears to misunderstand the nature of twitter. He noted that, unlike a “telephone call, letter or e-mail that is addressed to and directed at another person,” the postings on twitter (a “bulletin board”) could simply be turned on or off (source: New York Times). While it is possible to block people on twitter (just as you could block a particular phone number or e-mail address), there is nothing stopping that person from creating a new account and continuing the harassment. Twitter is, in fact, very much like a telephone call, letter or e-mail that is directed at another person.
Ruling Sends Wrong Message to Cyberbullies
On BlogHer, Stacy Morrison discussed the impact of the ruling in light of all the attention being given to the harm of cyberbullying:
This ruling is all the more surprising given all the attention that cyberbullying has gotten in the past year, as so-called “harmless” online communications led traumatized teenagers to take their own lives. And continuing research into teenagers and e-buse shows that constant monitoring via cell-phone texts creates as much self-esteem damage and anxiety as those comments would in person.
If we understand that the communication teens engage in via electronics is “real” and creates real damage and emotional devastation, then how is it possible that this is not what the judge understood in this case?
For people who live their lives to a great extent online, for both business and pleasure, being harassed in the spaces that they frequent can play a huge emotional toll and make them fear for their safety. The legal system needs to catch up and learn more about the nature of digital communications so that it doesn’t let harassment like this go unpunished.
Photo credit: trekkyandy on flickr
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