Constitutional Law

Federal Judge Says Thousands of Tweets and Posts, Many Urging Target's Death, Weren't Criminal

Saying that a religious leader targeted by some 8,000 tweets and blog posts is a public figure, a federal judge in Maryland yesterday dismissed criminal charges against a former friend charged in the cyberstalking case.

The messages, many of which urged the death of Alyce Zeoli, a Maryland-based Buddhist leader, were not a “true threat,” U.S. District Judge Roger W. Titus held in his opinion (PDF). He analogized the Twitter messages and posts to putting hard-copy messages on a bulletin board in a public area, CNN reports.

“Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day,” said one of the tweets at issue in the case. William Lawrence Cassidy, who posted a number of tweets and blog posts anonymously, according to the opinion, had been charged with interstate stalking under the Violence Against Women Act, CNN reported.

The case was prosecuted under a statutory provision that bans using an “interactive computer service” to cause “substantial emotional distress,” explains Ars Technica’s Law & Disorder blog.

However, Titus said that the victim of Cassidy’s messages was free to ignore them, if she wished to, unlike telephone messages or email clogging her inbox. He found that the tweets and posts were protected by the First Amendment, and that there was no compelling state interest served by criminalizing them.

“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,” Titus wrote.

Attorney Shanlon Wu, who represents Zeoli, told the New York Times his client is “appalled and frightened by the judge’s ruling.”

Zeoli said she feared for her safety and hadn’t left her home for a year and a half, except to visit a psychiatrist, PC Magazine reports.

Cassidy is represented by the Federal Public Defender’s office, which is now seeking his release from jail.

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