BALTIMORE — In a defeat to prosecutors hoping to put tight reins on free speech over the Internet, a federal judge has dismissed a criminal case against a man accused of Twitter stalking.
The ruling focused on 18 U.S.C § 2261A(2)(A), a statute that was amended five years ago to make it a federal crime to "cause substantial emotional distress" by harassment over interactive computer services, among other conduct.
U.S. Judge Roger W. Titus, who ruled in the case, called the federal law "facially invalid" and dismissed charges against William Lawrence Cassidy, who the government accused of harassing and distressing Buddhist religious leader Alyce Zeoli with “uncomfortable” speech on Twitter.
The FBI discovered more than 8,000 messages predicting catastrophic disasters for Zeoli and her group, with tweets like, “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day.”
Officers didn’t arrest Cassidy for his opinions, the Justice Department said, but because his tweets caused Zeoli “substantial emotional distress.”
But Titus ruled that the difference between Twitter and communication targeting an individual, like a phone call or an email, is that Twitter is more like a bulletin board, which can be disregarded.
“While Mr. Cassidy’s speech may have inflicted substantial emotion distress, the government’s indictment here is directed squarely as protected speech: anonymous, uncomfortable Internet speech addressing religious matters,” Titus ruled.
Free speech advocates, including those in the adult entertainment who rely on Internet connsumer marketing, B2B deal-making and industry communication, scored the ruling as a win, just and proper.
Adult industry attorney Marc Randazza told XBIZ that "part of the cost of living in a free society is that you have to endure annoying people and annoying speech."
"It seems bad enough when people waste the courts' time with civil claims that are really nothing more than someone being butthurt about someone else exercising their free speech rights," he said. "It is even more troubling when the government gets into the business of doing so."
Matt Zimmerman, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in this case, said no speaker should be threatened with prosecution — let alone held in jail as Mr. Cassidy was here — on the basis of allegations of offensive speech.
"Speech on social networking sites — as with speech anywhere — has the potential to inform and enlighten as well as to outrage," Zimmerman said. "It is imperative that courts recognize and uphold 1st Amendment protections in order to give all manner of expression sufficient breathing space to thrive online."