A man sent over 8,000 disturbing and threatening tweets to a Buddhist religious leader in a few short months, even going so far as to tell her to “go kill yourself”. But despite scaring her so much she refused to leave her house for 18 months, a judge has found this man innocent of stalking – siding with the freedom of speech advocates that Twitter is a public forum that can be disregarded by the victim.
There has been debate among pundits and legal experts alike around the exact nature of Twitter as a medium. If you send an @mention to a specific user, is it a private conversation? Or it is public? The answer to this question matters when it comes to identifying free speech online, as a tweet that is private could potentially be considered stalking, while a public one would likely not.
This question was put to the test this year in front of a federal US judge.
William Lawrence Cassidy was brought to trial by the FBI for sending over 8,000 distressing tweets to Alyce Zeoli, a leader of a Buddhist group in the course of about two months. During that time, he threatened her life and wrote tweet “haikus” which contained disturbing images of violence.
He was monitored by the FBI, which eventually arrested him not for his actual tweets but for the distress that he caused to Zeoli.
The New York Times reports that the judge overseeing the case ruled that Cassidy’s tweets were protected speech under the First Amendment, as they appeared on a public bulletin-board-like forum.
Part of the judge’s 27 page ruling reads:
“…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 New York Times goes on to report that the judge – perhaps ironically – compared Twitter to communication during the colonial period:
“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.”