A federal judge has dismissed a criminal case against a man accused of using Twitter to conduct a threatening campaign against a religious leader.
William Lawrence Cassidy had been jailed for predicting that violence would befall Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist religious leader, and for urging her to kill herself.
The judge said that Cassidy was protected by the First Amendment.
“While Mr. Cassidy’s speech may have inflicted substantial emotional distress,” Judge Roger W. Titus wrote in his order, “the government’s indictment here is directed squarely at protected speech: anonymous, uncomfortable Internet speech addressing religious matters.”
The case was filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland, where Zeoli lives. It’s possible that the judge’s ruling could be appealed — and there are certainly many who hope it will be.
Stretching the Boundaries
As it stands, the ruling is dangerous, said Justin Leto, trial attorney with the Leto Law Firm, and self-described liberal and First Amendment advocate.
“It doesn’t take into account how the Internet can be used to harass someone,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The First Amendment does not offer blanket protection — you can’t violate someone else’s rights and use the First Amendment as a shield.”
The ruling could lead to people committing defamation or harassment via social media, and their victims would have no legal recourse, he said.
Judge Titus noted that if Zeoli wanted to avoid Cassidy’s comments, all she had to do was stay off Twitter.
That suggests the judge might not be very familiar with the role social media plays in many people’s lives, Leto said. “Judges who are older might not understand or appreciate how social media affects every day life now.”
Grounds for Appeal?
The Maryland AG may have grounds for an appeal, according to Lori Andrews, law professor at Chicago-Kent College and author of the forthcoming book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy.
“Many other courts are also dealing with the issue of determining when tweets or posts are legal and when they are lethal,” she noted.
What the judge found Constitutionally problematic with this case, said Andrews, was the expansion of the federal cyberharassment statute so that it criminalized not just serious threats of violence but tweets that caused substantial emotional distress to people.
“In a footnote, the judge suggested that the prosecutors had made a mistake by indicting under the ’emotional distress’ provision of the federal cyberstalking law rather than the ‘true threats to safety’ provision,” she pointed out.
On the other hand, criminal defense attorney Mark McBride, Of Counsel to Gardner + Associates, thinks there is very little chance of getting the case overturned on appeal.
“The First Amendment is not for ideas and people we like,” he told TechNewsWorld.
The case might have gone differently if Cassidy had presented a clear and present danger to Zeoli by posting tweets or sending emails or letters indicating he had a well-thought-out, intricate plan in place to kill her, McBride noted. But he didn’t.
“The judge made the right decision,” he concluded.