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William Lawrence Cassidy has been indicted and now arrested on charges of online stalking for publishing nearly 8000 posts about Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist leader based in Maryland. While Twitter posts have been the source of defamation suits worldwide, the federal cyberstalking law is rarely invoked to press criminal charges for Twitter use. As a result, this case asks the question whether Twitter use is sufficiently frightening to be considered direct harassment or whether it is instead protected free speech broadcast to an audience of Twitter users.
Federal prosecutors say that Mr. Cassidy’s Tweets caused Ms. Zeoli “substantial emotional distress” so that she did not leave her home for eighteen months and hired armed guards to protect her. On the other hand, Mr. Cassidy’s federal public defenders counter that Mr. Cassidy’s Tweets, albeit offensive and emotionally distressing, are protected free speech in a public platform about a public figure.
But are Mr. Cassidy’s Tweets about Ms. Zeoli or to her? One Tweet says, “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day.” Another reads, “Ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya. Long limb, sharp saw, hard drop.”* Moreover, each time Ms. Zeoli blocked Mr. Cassidy’s Tweets, he registered a new account to reach her. In fact, another Tweet read, “(Victim 1) [name redacted in complaint]: somebody throw a couple shots of gin in the bitch & get her back on twitter: she’s fun 2 play with.”
Former federal prosecutor and Ms. Zeoli’s representation, Shanlon Wu likes the posts to “handwritten notes.” However, the San-Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, who wants the case dismissed, states, “While not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, the idea that courts must police every inflammatory word spoken online not only chills freedom of speech but unsupported by decades of First Amendment jurisprudence.” EFF has filed an amicus brief in the case.
*Mr. Cassidy obviously does not know what a haiku is.
– Whitney Boshers
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