A federal judge has dismissed a criminal case against a man accused of using Twitter to conduct a threatening campaign against a religious leader.
William Lawrence Cassidy had been jailed for predicting that violence would befall Alyce Zeoli, a Buddhist religious leader, and for urging her to kill herself.
The judge said that Cassidy was protected by the First Amendment.
“While Mr. Cassidy’s speech may have inflicted substantial emotional distress,” Judge Roger W. Titus wrote in his order, “the government’s indictment here is directed squarely at protected speech: anonymous, uncomfortable Internet speech addressing religious matters.”
The case was filed by the U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland, where Zeoli lives. It’s possible that the judge’s ruling could be appealed — and there are certainly many who hope it will be.
Stretching the Boundaries
As it stands, the ruling is dangerous, said Justin Leto, trial attorney with the Leto Law Firm, and self-described liberal and First Amendment advocate.
“It doesn’t take into account how the Internet can be used to harass someone,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The First Amendment does not offer blanket protection — you can’t violate someone else’s rights and use the First Amendment as a shield.”
The ruling could lead to people committing defamation or harassment via social media, and their victims would have no legal recourse, he said.
Judge Titus noted that if Zeoli wanted to avoid Cassidy’s comments, all she had to do was stay off Twitter.
That suggests the judge might not be very familiar with the role social media plays in many people’s lives, Leto said. “Judges who are older might not understand or appreciate how social media affects every day life now.”
Grounds for Appeal?
The Maryland AG may have grounds for an appeal, according to Lori Andrews, law professor at Chicago-Kent College and author of the forthcoming book, I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did: Social Networks and the Death of Privacy.
“Many other courts are also dealing with the issue of determining when tweets or posts are legal and when they are lethal,” she noted.
What the judge found Constitutionally problematic with this case, said Andrews, was the expansion of the federal cyberharassment statute so that it criminalized not just serious threats of violence but tweets that caused substantial emotional distress to people.
“In a footnote, the judge suggested that the prosecutors had made a mistake by indicting under the ’emotional distress’ provision of the federal cyberstalking law rather than the ‘true threats to safety’ provision,” she pointed out.
On the other hand, criminal defense attorney Mark McBride, Of Counsel to Gardner + Associates, thinks there is very little chance of getting the case overturned on appeal.
“The First Amendment is not for ideas and people we like,” he told TechNewsWorld.
The case might have gone differently if Cassidy had presented a clear and present danger to Zeoli by posting tweets or sending emails or letters indicating he had a well-thought-out, intricate plan in place to kill her, McBride noted. But he didn’t.
“The judge made the right decision,” he concluded.
I have personal experience with Roger Titus in a case that is on point and relevant. I AM a named party in a civil case before Titus. In March 0f 2004 many issues were settled by an Agreed Injunction, which, AM ong other things, required the parties to refrain from making defamatory or derogatory comments or writing about each other. Titus entered a Permanent Injunction. In 2007 I discovered that Roger Mason, owner of a prominent supplement and pharmaceutical enterprise, had been sending anonymous letters to our customers, suppliers, distributors, employees making the most blatant and horrific comments, allegations and threats about myself, my family, and anyone else who supported our case. Among the letters were cartoons portraying my headstone, my body in a cemetery, my body on a gurney in a morgue. In sworn testimony and depositions Mason denied sending or authoring most of the cartoons and anonymous letters even through we are able to show he used identical language and descriptions in email messages/letters he sent to third parties. I filed a motion to have Mason held in contempt. Not only did Titus dismiss my motion, he sanctioned me $25000 for bringing it and when I did not pay it he threw me in the District of Columbia Jail for 97 days where I suffered severe mental and physical abuse. Yes, I was thrown into jail for asking Titus to enforce his own Permanent Injunction! If you think I’m making this up, please look up my appeal to the 4th Circuit, 09-1481. Titus needs to be removed from the bench by impeachment or whatever means are possible. He is a danger to the judiciary and is totally out of control. If you want to learn more just Google "John Acord" + Titus