IPLJ BLOG FEATURE: From the Desk of the Editor
Each month, Editor-in-Chief Jacqueline McMahon weighs in on topics and legal issues covered in the IPLJ. This month Jacqueline tackles the very real… and scary… implications of social media.
… and then there’s stalking.
Thanks to William Lawrence Cassidy, the invisible line separating appropriate and inappropriate conduct on social media sites has become slightly more clear—posting 8,000 tweets about one individual is NOT okay. Unfortunately, Cassidy had to learn this lesson the hard way when, as the New York Times reported, authorities arrested him in his California home last week on charges of cyberstalking. Mr. Cassidy reportedly posted thousands of twitter messages, from various pseudonyms, all directed at Ms. Alyce Zeoli, the leader of a Buddhist group based in Maryland. The content of the messages ranged from cloaked threats of violence against Zeoli, like “late at night at the edge o da farm, something creepin in the woods gonna do ya harm…,” to less dramatic, poetically-inaccurate posts, including “Ya like haiku? Here’s one for ya. Long limb, sharp saw, hard drop.”
Considerable debate surrounds the protection and scrutiny that should be afforded speech presented on social media platforms. Cassidy’s posts could be equated with a harmful review on RateMyProfessor.com, which, even though likely to cause some emotional distress to the subject, would not land the poster in court. (At least not yet.) There are also obvious benefits to liberal online speech scrutiny, particularly on such a global platform as the Internet. Social media sites like Twitter and Facebook have already been used by groups to create social change, or at least signal to the polity that something displeases the public.
Despite the beneficial policy reasons for unbridled speech online, the negative side effects of such speech have forced individuals, and now the government, to take action against displeasing tweets. Several libel and defamation suits resulting from errant tweets or Facebook posts have been popped up in federal courts in recent months and commentators expect the quantity of suits filed to increase with the public’s use of such sites. In one such defamation suit, an NBA referee sued the Associated Press for $75,000 after a reporter tweeted a comment about the ref’s calls during the game.
For poor Mr. Cassidy, however, the party pressing charges is the government, the complaint is of criminal conduct, and the penalty could be several years in jail and a hefty fine. The complaint alleges that Mr. Cassidy’s conduct violated 18 U.S.C. § 2261A, a criminal stalking statute, which states in pertinent part:
Whoever, with the intent to kill, injure, harass, or place under surveillance with intent to kill, injure, harass, or intimidate, or cause substantial emotional distress to a person in another State, . . . uses any interactive computer service, or facility of interstate commerce to engage in a course of conduct that causes substantial emotional distress to that person or places that person in reasonable fear of the death of that person.
Cassidy’s attorneys have cried “First Amendment!,” claiming that Twitter is a public forum where even offensive speech is protected. The important distinction, some argue, is between what one says about a person and what can be said to a person. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, who supported the defense motion to dismiss the case, elaborated on the potential disastrous effects of a verdict against Cassidy by saying “[w]hile not all speech is protected by the First Amendment, the idea that the courts must police every inflammatory word spoken online not only chills freedom of speech but is unsupported by decades of First Amendment jurisprudence.”
Regardless of how the speech is classified, the tweets certainly had a deleterious effect on Ms. Zeoli’s life. Ms. Zeoli reported that the messages caused her “substantial emotional distress” requiring her to hire armed guards for her residence and isolate herself within her home for a period of 18 months. Cassidy’s past criminal record, including charges of domestic violence, arson, and possession of a firearm, did little to quell Ms. Zeoli’s fears.
Cassidy is now being held in a federal prison awaiting trial. Ms. Zeoli can sleep easy for the next few months at least, while the rest of the world lies awake wondering if that last tweet or Facebook post could land them on the lower bunk.