The tweets were cruel and scary and said things like, “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day.” Over 8,000 tweets like this were sent to religious leader, Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist leader in Maryland. The tweets came from an ever evolving bunch of accounts that all led back to one man, William Lawrence Cassidy, a former friend of Ms. Zeoli’s.
She eventually filed suit against him for online stalking, and Mr. Cassidy went to jail. But the case shortly landed in Federal court and became focused on free speech, and on Thursday the case was dismissed.
The reason? The judge likened Twitter to billboards, rather than direct emails, and therefore they are protected speech and not direct threats.
The New York Times had this to say about the judge’s ruling:
In his order, Judge Titus drew an analogy to the colonial period, when the Bill of Rights was written. A blog, he said, is like a bulletin board that a person of that time might have planted in his 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,” he offered.
With Twitter, he went on, news from one colonist’s bulletin board could automatically show up on another’s. The postings can be “turned on or off by the owners of the bulletin boards,” he wrote. In other words, one can disregard what is posted on a bulletin board. “This is in sharp contrast to a telephone call, letter or e-mail specifically addressed to and directed at another person,” he concluded.
This will obviously delight the people that are the authors of bully websites, which of course also (generally) do not cross the line to sending direct messages to the person they are bullying. I, personally, have no doubt whatsoever that Twitter streams, blogs, and Facebook sites dedicated to insulting and “taking down” a particular blogger on line ARE bullies – and Mr. Cassidy was clearly exhibiting bullying behavior (perhaps a cyber bullying law suit would have had more success?).
But I also, personally, believe passionately in freedom of speech, so my feelings are mixed on this one. I suppose we’re going to have to go back to the old rule of “don’t feed the trolls” and continue to work hard to ignore the bullies and just allow them to do what they do, while we do what we do. That is, of course, as long as it’s not libel, slanderous, or crosses into direct harassment via emails, phone calls, or texts. Apparently.