Judge Dismisses Twitter Stalking Case
The New York Times
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
December 15, 2011
SAN FRANCISCO — In a case with potentially far-reaching consequences for freedom of expression on the Internet, a federal judge on Thursday dismissed a criminal case against a man accused of stalking a religious leader on Twitter, saying that the Constitution protects “uncomfortable” speech on such bulletin-boardlike sites.
The government had accused the defendant, William Lawrence Cassidy, of harassing and causing “substantial emotional distress” to a Buddhist religious leader named Alyce Zeoli. He had posted thousands of messages about her, some predicting her violent death. He lived in California, she in Maryland.
In his 27-page order, Judge Roger W. Titus wrote that “while Mr. Cassidy’s speech may have inflicted substantial emotional distress, the government’s indictment here is directed squarely at protected speech: anonymous, uncomfortable Internet speech addressing religious matters.”
The United States attorney’s office in Maryland, which filed the case, had no comment on the order Thursday, and it was unclear whether it would exercise its right to appeal the decision. Shanlon Wu, a lawyer for Ms. Zeoli, said in an e-mail that his client was “appalled and frightened by the judge’s ruling.”
Mr. Cassidy’s attorneys with the Federal Public Defender’s office said they were working on his release from jail. Mr. Cassidy’s diatribes on Twitter, posted under an ever-changing list of pseudonyms, were along these lines: “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day.”
In his order, Judge Titus drew an analogy to the colonial period, when the Bill of Rights was written. A blog, he said, is like a bulletin board that a person of that time might have planted in his front yard. “If one colonist wants to see what is on another’s bulletin board, he would need to walk over to his neighbor’s yard and look at what is posted, or hire someone else to do so,” he offered.
With Twitter, he went on, news from one colonist’s bulletin board could automatically show up on another’s. The postings can be “turned on or off by the owners of the bulletin boards,” he wrote. In other words, one can disregard what is posted on a bulletin board. “This is in sharp contrast to a telephone call, letter or e-mail specifically addressed to and directed at another person,” he concluded.
Hanni Fakhoury, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, based in San Francisco, which filed a brief in support of the defendant’s motion to dismiss the case, said he was heartened by the distinction that the judge drew between speech on a public platform, versus through e-mail or telephone.
The order is among the first to address a recently expanded cyberstalking law and, as such, could have important repercussions. “This is an area where there has been very little case law,” said Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It is likely to be quite influential.”