U.S. District Judge: You Can Use Twitter To Harass, Threaten

    December 16, 2011

U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus of Maryland yesterday granted a motion to dismiss a criminal case against a man who stood accused of harassment of a religious figure via Twitter. The dismissal has powder keg-potential for how free speech on the Internet will be enforced in the future.

William Lawrence Cassidy stood accused of using Twitter to target Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist religious leader, with aggressive and violent threats during the months of May to December in 2010. Some of Cassidy’s tweets were derogatory towards Zeoli’s religious beliefs while some vaguely suggested acts of violence that may befall Zeoli. The FBI concluded that of the 8,000 tweets that Cassidy posted, almost all of them were about Zeoli or her Buddhist group.

In his ruling, Judge Titus cited the First Amendment as the influence for his decision:

Even though the Internet is the newest medium for anonymous, uncomfortable expression touching on political or religious matters, online speech is equally protected under the First Amendment as there is “no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied” to online speech.

Judge Titus’ understanding of exactly how sites like Twitter operate is a little concerning, as he believes them to contain the same potency as a community bulletin board:

Because this case involves First Amendment issues, terms that were in use by citizens when the Bill of Rights was drafted may help in understanding the legal context of Blogs and Twitter. Suppose that a Colonist erects a bulletin board in the front yard of his home to post announcements that might be of interest to others and other Colonists do the same. A Blog is like a bulletin board, except that it is erected in cyberspace rather than in one’s 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. Now, one can inspect a neighbor’s Blog by simply turning on a computer.

Twitter allows the bulletin board system to function so that what is posted on Colonist No. 1’s bulletin board is automatically posted on Colonist No. 2’s bulletin board for Colonist No. 2 to see. The automatic postings from one Colonist to another can be turned on or off by the owners of the bulletin boards, but there is no mandatory aspect of postings on one Colonist’s bulletin board showing up on the other’s. It is entirely up to the two Colonists whether their bulletin boards will be interconnected in such a manner

The collection of Tweets from Cassidy that were available in the court ruling are categorized as “Threats,” “Criticism of” Zeoli and/or her religious group, “Derogatory Statements Directed Towards” Zeoli, “Responses to” Zeoli and/or her religious group, and “Statements not necessarily directed towards” Zeoli. Some of Cassidy’s cryptic tweets below are from Appendix A of the court document that was provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

– Tuesday, June 22, 2010: “want it to all be over soon sweetie?”
– Sunday, July 25, 2010: “(A.Z.) you called me a “sick low life pig” oh great Mandarava? Go kill yourself.”
– Sunday, October 24, 2010: “Rain tomorrow should cover the tracks…”
– Monday, December 20, 2010: “I have this *amazing* present for a group of people who really, really deserve something *amazing*. Long time in preparation. Wait for it.”
– Monday, December 20, 2010: “I have a really *special* eclipse present for somebody who really, really deserves something *special.* Full circle karma. Wait for it.”
– Sunday, May 30, 2010: “(A.Z.) is a demonic force who tries to destroy Buddhism”
– Sunday, May 30, 2010: “ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya: “Long, Limb, Sharp Saw, Hard Drop” ROFLMAO.”

Going from what I can understand of page six of the document, it appears that Zeoli attempted to protect herself from Cassidy’s harassment by using multiple accounts although it’s uncertain if these were used in tandem or if they succeeded each other after she abandoned an account due to Cassidy’s persistent tweeting. Twitter does have privacy policies where you can protect your tweets from being seen to the general public, but it’s not clear whether Zeoli applied that setting to any of her accounts (couldn’t read the whole court doc, folks – I gots deadlines).

Internet trolls are nothing new. The Internet would probably never get used if it weren’t for people out there trolling other people, anonymously posting venomous comments about other anonymous people. But still… although the tenacity of Cassidy’s aggressive fixation on Zeoli and her religious group probably does file into “free speech,” that doesn’t mean that they’re not menacing or threatening. Would these somewhat-veiled threats be considered the same way if they were scrawled onto notes that were left on her windshield? And if Cassidy is free to make “uncomfortable” use of the First Amendment, what does this imply about anyone in the United States who may be posting material that could be considered “uncomfortable” but terroristic?